Bookshelf backdrops provide rare backstage pass for curious book lovers

The transition to in-home makeshift studios during the COVID-19 pandemic has forced TV personalities, reporters, on-air talent and contributors to record from living rooms, basements and home offices.

Whether it’s celebrities broadcasting to millions of people or a few co-workers connecting on a Zoom video call, bookshelves can be a frequent backdrop. They can provide a backstage pass for inquisitive viewers and curious book lovers alike.

“It’s a sneak peek into their private lives,” said Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse. “How legitimate it is, is a big question. I think I’ve seen some people clearly propped up. (For authors) it’s usually copies of their own book in the background.”

Depending on the subject and the reach, bookshelves can serve as billboards for those inclined. They could also provide a chance for the well-read — or those who wish they were — to toot their literary horn. Or they could simply be an aesthetically pleasing focal point of one’s living space.

The ”One World: Together at Home” coronavirus relief broadcast last week captured the new normal of in-home broadcasting. Viewers were able to get rare glimpses into the living spaces of celebrities and performers who appeared on the show.

Co-host Stephen Colbert stood beside built-in shelves with traditional book placement, a stark contrast to actor Kerry Washington’s colour co-ordinated books, with dark spines on her top shelf, yellow books on the middle and red ones on the bottom.

“I think as human beings, we’re naturally curious. We want to know more about the people that we’re looking at,” said certified home stager Lora Cristofari. “A bookcase, how it’s styled and the types of books on there, can really reveal a lot about a person’s personality.”

A keen eye could spot that Colbert had Daniel Yergin’s “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World” among the few dozen books on his shelves.

Book enthusiasts may have also noticed actor/comedian Larry David, playing politician Bernie Sanders on ”Saturday Night Live” this month, had Saul Bellow’s “Ravelstein” and David Halberstam’s “Summer of ‘49” among the titles on his shelf during an ”SNL At Home” episode.

Conservative commentator David Frum, a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine, has gone so far as to provide bookshelf backdrop explainers during his new “Quarantine Q & A” sitdown video series.

Frum uses an alphabetical system for his expansive book collection, with As starting at the top of his three-storey home in Washington, D.C. He opened a recent broadcast by explaining a change in backdrop, as he was shooting in a room with ”Rs and the Ss” — pointing out Andrei Sakharov’s book “Memoirs” — instead of from his office upstairs where author surnames in the G-H range are kept.

He’s comfortable discussing his books and family photographs on the videos but admits he sometimes feels a “little awkward” about what he sees as a viewer.

“We’re catching people at a disadvantage,” he said. “We’re being invited into spaces where we would not normally go.”

Kruse said he naturally gravitates to bookshelves whether he’s entering a room or watching something on television.

“I’ve got an office lined with books and I’m always curious what someone else has and is reading and what we have in common,” he said from Princeton, N.J. “Maybe it’s something I haven’t seen before and I’m just kind of drawn to it.”

For those looking to use a professional look for their next Zoom call or in-home video shoot, decent lighting and proper camera placement are good places to start.

When it comes to bookshelves, loose symmetry and ease of access are key, Cristofari said, adding that mixing things up and leaving some open space can be attractive to the eye.

“Organized and styled go hand in hand,” she said from Newmarket, Ont. “You want it to be pleasing to look at. Books make us feel good.”

There are a number of sorting strategies for those interested: alphabetical, genre, read versus unread, colour and size.

If you’re comfortable showcasing a room and want to make things pop on a bookshelf, Cristofari suggested mixing in stacks of books with a side-by-side look. Personal touches like pictures, artwork, decorative bowls or small plants can serve as nice accompaniments.

“It’s definitely personality based, just like the titles on your bookshelf,” she said.

Kruse, who has written three books of his own, occasionally does video interviews from his work office. He recently joked about the bookshelf backdrop subject on Twitter.

“I think I speak for all academics when I say that if you’re doing a cable TV spot from home and you have your bookshelves behind you and I don’t immediately see one of my books on it, you are *dead* to me,” he tweeted.

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