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20 words for a new world: Bookshelves

20 words for a new world: Bookshelves

“How did your day go?” I asked my 14-year-old daughter. “Full of Zoom,” she replied, worn out by eight consecutive hours of webinar lessons. During dinner she asked me: “Dad, why does everyone have bookshelves in the background of their video calls?”

This question took me aback, because I have already been working from home for the past two years with my beloved bookshelves filled with more than 3,000 books in the background. I regard them as my “Linus blanket”:they’re always with me.

Yet now the lockdown has shattered the “home/office” division for good. We have to open up our homes to complete strangers. And from a simple item of furniture to an essential backdrop for video calls, bookshelves are more than ever a symbol of the intellectual elite.

I once hosted a webinar for seven Indian universities, with around 3,000 participants joining in. Even before considering the material for the presentation, I asked myself what I could share of my private life. Bookshelves are actually the best possible business card, a kind of fashionable tie or elegant suit that somehow keeps up appearances. 

Other aspects emerge if we dig a little deeper. The office still remains a very clear symbol of power. In the movies too, the set design underlines the power dimension, something that Charlie Chaplin understood in his celebrated film The Great Dictator. Well, working from home has swept away that aspect of power as well: we’ve seen into the homes of the powerful, their noisy, happy children running around filled with joy at having their parents home at last, their cats and dogs occasionally ambling into view.

Bookshelves are perhaps able to project a semblance of power, of elite status, “setting the tone” when other symbols of power have disappeared. But we also have to watch the details: how are the bookshelves organised? As my daughter has noticed, some bookshelves seem bare, some display old dusty encyclopaedias, while others seem to be filled with silver objects or picture frames but few books. Yet others are full of books piled in at random, some are impeccably organised and others are arranged by colour, which in my opinion is a kind of offence to the true nature of books. How can you put a philosophy book next to a gardening book just because their covers are the same colour?

As Cicero wrote: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” I believe that seeing the books and bookshelves of the people I talk to has restored some soul to our digital conversations, making our Zoomful days seem more human. 

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