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Corona Diaries: The Joys of Lockdown – number 37, dressing your library for success

May 29, 2020

I realise now that my big Book Project early in lockdown was futile and misguided. How do I know this? Because over the past couple of months I’ve been watching very carefully how other people, mostly famous, have arranged their books. I never realised that there were so many people out there as erudite and boring as me.

Don’t tell me that they haven’t done precisely what I did: to make sure that when the camera is on them, the backdrop displays to the best possible effect the image they hope to portray.

Some wish to overwhelm us with their intellectual superiority by appearing at a desk dwarfed by a warehouse of books – unending shelves so large that the titles couldn’t be read – thus leaving the impression that the person must have spent twenty-three hours a day since the age of eighteen months reading the great literature of the world. The message is clearly “resistance is futile, for I am too wise”

Others, who don’t live in a book depository, make sure that the volumes on display are mainly hardback, so that the spines can easily be read. Quirky juxtapositions of subjects are designed to portray the owner as a person of immaculate taste and eclectic interests. A bit like me, really.

But where I went wrong was to separate everything into genres, and distribute them around the house. History, pop psychology (stuff that real psychologists suffused with jealousy think is superficial bollocks), economics and Middle East in the study. Geography and non-chronological history in the hall. Biographies, medical, travel, theatre, music and poetry in the lounge. Fiction, alphabetically arranged by author, in the back lounge. Coffee table monstrosities in the conservatory. Cookery books, impressive in their scope but largely unused, in the kitchen.

The idea was that depending on who wanted to interview me, I could select the backdrop best suited to the subject of the interview. Talking to the world about spies and wizards in front of endless Robert Harris, John Le Carre or JK Rowling sends a different message than pontificating on history and politics in front of row after row of books about World War 2, Byzantium and Saudi Arabia.

There are two flaws in this approach. First, of the stuff I read, I forget far more than I remember, so if you were to ask me about this or that particular book, the chances are that I’d have to bullshit, and unconvincingly at that. And second, there isn’t the remotest chance that anyone is going to want to interview me anyway.

So the whole exercise was actually a colossal vanity project. Not that I regret doing it, because one of the sublime pleasures of being male is making a mess and having to clear it up, arrange it according to intricate logic, create exhaustive lists and then stand, speechless in self-admiration, inspecting the result. Then calling upon one’s spouse to inspect the results and share the admiration. And then making a mess again.

But I do love the fact that lockdown has accelerated a process that was well underway before the virus arrived. People no longer dress for success, or if they do so it’s in subtle ways that send a message about how special they are, as in Dominic Cummings showing up for work at 10, Downing Street looking like a teenager who’s been up all night gaming.

But they do dress their libraries for success.

Books everywhere, some horizonal, some diagonal some vertical, no particular order? The owner is mad, wild, creative, interesting. Worthy of being interviewed by Melvin Bragg.

Arranged carefully by genre, not an inch of space and nothing out of place? The mind of a law professor or a philosopher. Or possibly a dentist.

Mein Kampf sitting next to Das Kapital and biographies of Bismarck, Lloyd George and Lyndon Johnson? Surely a politician, or an illiterate like Donald Trump who’s hired an image consultant to populate his bookshelf with volumes he’ll never read.

So on reflection, how would I rearrange my books, should I do or say something that leads the world to my doorstep, or more likely these days to my webcam?

Well, I would probably want to give the impression that I don’t give a monkey’s what the world thinks about me. Which would be untrue, because I wouldn’t want to be thought of as a mass murderer, a paedophile or a rugby fan. But a random selection of weird titles would probably be enough send people off the track and portray me as fascinating, mysterious and unknowable.

I’d start by retrieving one of my offspring’s My Little Pony albums from the attic and placing it next to an obscure German autobiography from my father’s library, such as Aus Meinem Leben 1859-1888 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then The Joy of Sex next to the Holy Bible, followed by a coffee table book called The Ubiquitous Pig next to a tome about Donald Trump. Or possibly the entire Flashman series interspersed with books about knitting. Or even The Love Affairs of Pixie (by Mrs George De Horne Vaisey, 1921 edition) next to a biography of Rasputin. And so on. Enough to make you wonder from which institution this psycho was released.

One thing’s for sure. Lockdown has created an entire new source of idle pleasure. Forget people-watching. Library-watching’s now the thing, and will remain so until the poseurs of the world go back to doing their interviews, TikToks and vlogs from bars, sacred mountains or in front of their cute little collections of Picasso cartoons.

Nowt as queer as folk, as they say down in Buenos Aires.

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    Had never heard of the Flashman books. Do you recommend them?

    • Recommend them? Essential reading if you’re interested in 19th century history. Wickedly funny. Flashman is a cowardly cad who turns up at key moments in history, Crimean War, American Civil War, Afghan wars, Indian Mutiny et al. He gets into hair raising situations but always come up smelling of roses, utterly undeservedly. I’m a late convert, but now a devotee! S

  2. Constant reorganisation, that’s the thing. Even before the lockdown started I was endlessly reorganising everything — I’m sure I’ve gotten worse over the past few months.

    • As Petronius didn’t say, but probably wished he had: ““We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. … I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”


      • That sounds like every large company I’ve worked for 😉

      • Me too. We had that quotation on a notice board in head office of the company I co-owned.

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    ahhhhh! May I quote YOU on that?
    Such an apt observation. I can’t count the number of people into and out of this “government” here.
    It’s getting scarier by the minute. The new riots are being carried out by groups coming in to various cities from outside.
    Shades of Germany.

    • Of course you can! Yes, I’m taking a keen interest in the riots, and wondering when we’ll see some here.

  4. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Rather than sit in front of books while I teach English online, one corner of my real backdrop (wallpaint made from seashells and wooden Balinese fish), is a dish-drainer. Out of shot is a dishwasher.

    Neither of these do I know how to use…how’s that for 19th century cunning? 🙂

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