Colette Sheridan: Judging people by the books on their shelves can be very telling

What do the books on your shelves say about you? Colette Sheridan asks in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Judging people by the books on their shelves can be very telling

EVERY BOOKSHELF TELLS A STORY: And their contents can often be seen on Zoom and Skype calls during Covid. iStock photo

WITH so many TV interviews with everyone from celebrities to political commentators being conducted in their homes on Skype and Zoom because of Covid, viewers can’t help but take a good look at the background vistas.

And so, we recently saw journalist and broadcaster, Piers Morgan, in his very tasteful study, being interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show. In my view, the loudmouth Morgan has the best room for remote interviews that I’ve seen so far.

Some folk clearly don’t care about the bad art they have on their wall. (Of course, they don’t think it’s bad.) Nor do they realise that trophies and medals on a shelf are pure naff.

Morgan’s room has nice gleaming furniture, lots of books, and a big window through which a bit of the well-cultivated garden can be glimpsed. I don’t know what’s on his bookshelves. But it can get a person into trouble.

There was a bit of a twitter furore over British politician, Michael Gove’s reading choices when a book by Holocaust denier, David Irving, was spotted while the MP was on a video call.

But, of course, as a politician, and married to a newspaper columnist, owning a book by such an odious and controversial figure is not necessarily a sign that Gove’s own politics are sinister — although anyone who labours under Boris Johnson is, to put it politely, deluded.

Gove would no doubt say he reads Irving to be informed, to see what the really dangerous fringe element believes .

However, a carefully manicured bookshelf belonging to a public figure who goes on the telly is desirable. 

The rest of us fall roughly into two categories. Our bookshelves are either a carelessly dumped-on space where maybe an old scribbled-on school book sits aside a trashy bonk-buster by Jilly Cooper. Or we fancy ourselves as leaning towards the intellectual, with our volumes of history and biographies of important figures holding pride of place.

I fall between the categories. A quick glance at my book shelf reveals a book called The Ultimate Insult (it’s one of those list type books so handy for hacks) sitting side-by-side with a thick volume containing the collected works of Shakespeare.

I have a memoir (remembered as being very entertaining) by the late Paula Yates, and close by is a book entitled The Change by Germaine Greer (which I barely glanced at.) But I’d be loathe to get rid of most of my books. And therein lies a problem.

Books, as well as being dust gatherers, occupy a lot of space. And when your life’s mission is to declutter, what can you throw out?

It’s easy to throw clothes you haven’t worn for at least a year into a black sack to be given away. But what to do with all those novels, some read, others tantalising you to open them up and enter the world of the authors?

If you worship at the shrine of declutterer-supreme, Marie Kondo, you will have whittled your book collection down to no more than thirty, as she has suggested. Thirty? It’s absurd. Some of us have nearly twenty cookery books alone.

Not to mention the tomes we’ve been given as gifts and the various books that we unthinkingly buy at readings from writers flogging their wares.

Then there are the books that we think we need if we’re to function socially at dinner parties. (In my head, such gatherings value erudition. In reality, no matter how ‘exalted’ the company, gossip is generally on the menu rather than, say, the phenomenon of Sally Rooney.)

But you still need to be in the know, reading what’s current, making your way through the Booker shortlist.

Yes, there’s a lot of snobbery based around the contents of our bookshelves. Because of keeping up and the lack of space, books spill over onto the floor. It’s not a good look.

And in the age of the Kindle, where you can access the complete works of Charles Dickens and the latest bestselling books, you’d wonder why we continue to buy hard copy books. They create such chaos.

But for me, while admitting to a bit of bookshelf snobbery, books have sentimental value.

They might be written by a friend or acquaintance, they might have been bought from and signed by an author I admire at a reading, or they may have been purchased while away.

I like to write the name of the place where each was bought inside the cover, as well as the date.

A kindle wouldn’t really do it for me although it makes more sense than adding to the pile of books in my office.

Marie Kondo’s criterion for holding onto stuff is the question, ‘does it spark joy?’

The answer is generally ‘yes’. Long live the printed word.

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