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The Sad Smugness of the Bookshelf Troll

With home libraries on prominent display, some see a chance to spark outrage

The “literary” internet’s favorite motto borrows the wit of the incomparable John Waters, who said: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” 

By repeating this commonplace, you make at least two separate claims: That you, despite loving books, are sexually active and desirable — nice, good job — and, more crucially, that the appearance of being a reader is almost equivalent to solid proof of reading.

From this loophole derives our stereotype of the guy who wants to be seen holding Infinite Jest on the subway, as well as provocative critical texts including University of Paris professor Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Books themselves, and an implicit or affirmed relationship with them, are stepping stones to status, though Waters later stipulated that it’s fine to sleep with a bookless person if they’re “cute enough.”

That status is the subject of Twitter’s “Bookcase Credibility” watchdog, whose anonymous author scans the shelves of pundits, politicians and celebrities giving interviews from home, judging the composition. “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you,” says the bio. 

Bookcase Credibility is mainly concerned with the aesthetic of the shelves — cluttered or bare, disorganized or tightly coordinated, the furniture as it sits in the room and the frame of the screen, etc. — because these images rarely offer a close-up look at the titles. Therefore, we are left to judge the pixelated gestalt. But in certain cases, we are treated to identifiable books, which cannot help but complement an individual’s brand. 

There’s the classic highbrow flex:    

The asinine, Trumpian self-promotion:

And, on the reactionary fringe, some outright trolling. 

Here we see that U.K. cabinet minister Michael Gove, of the Conservative Party, and his wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, have at least one bookcase featuring racist pseudoscience and neo-Nazi revisionism. Ordinarily, short of a dinner invite, we’d have to speculate on this library of theirs — but they posted it to Twitter with the evident aim of triggering critics to their left.

After being ridiculed for owning The Bell Curve and an Ayn Rand novel, Vine and her supporters mounted the predictable defense: that she does not sympathize with the repulsive viewpoints on offer here, but needs to engage with them in order to “defeat prejudice.” That rhetoric is nearly as convincing as when shitposters argue their racism is “ironic,” i.e., not at all. Vine has cheered on Islamophobia; Gove once compared Brexit skeptics to Nazis. To think they are ever intellectually honest, let alone about what this bookshelf represents, is foolishness.

What’s interesting, though, is how context layers differently depending which side of the culture war you’re on. For the right, it’s an easy “gotcha” to reveal your copy of a volume by someone jailed for a year in Austria over his denials of the Holocaust, clearly hoping to gin up outrage, then turn around and insist that you’ve materially supported that author only because you disagree with him and want to challenge his work. What we’ll call the Mein Kampf gambit holds that some hateful and incendiary books have academic value as reference artifacts if not as records of truth.

The argument holds up well enough… unless, as leftists have pointed out, the entire bookcase betrays a deep interest in eugenics and affiliate ideologies, and this on top of some personal reputation for questionable commentary. The photo itself undercuts the declaration of innocent research: The people who study extremism aren’t in the habit of boasting their collection of the raw material — e.g., after reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life for a summer “Bro Bible” series here at MEL, I couldn’t wait to dump it on the curb. Also, Vine and Gove aren’t going to “debunk” Atlas Shrugged. It is there by way of their approval.   

On someone else’s shelf, Ayn Rand could be a rogue embarrassment, the remnant of a college course or passing phase. More than a few books in this vein might constitute a philosophical “red flag” to the close observer. But as the fiction counterweight to discredited and toxic scholarship crowding the rest of the scene, Atlas Shrugged is proof that these people aren’t just enamored of the dangerous ideas in very bad books — they also don’t even like to read.

The “credibility bookcase” backfires in most spectacular fashion when it’s full, yet barely makes a concession to literary pleasure or diversion, packed as it is with war porn and cash-grab hardcovers from the Dick Cheneys of the world. When you try to outmaneuver your opponents on anti-censorship grounds by exposing your edgy curation, you risk admitting that you’ve wasted your life as a reader. You can’t get back the hours you spent with Henry Kissinger’s memoirs.  

All worth keeping in mind as you think about how to angle the camera for Zoom meetings, or whether to bait your haters with a glimpse into your private life that is, on reflection, rather sad. Yes, you’ll always tick off a handful of those who know that The Bell Curve posits genetic causes for lower IQ scores, but the rest of us may feel a twinge of pity for the mind willingly given over to this trash.

And why did that happen? What, in the end, was the actual point?

It is not we who are injured by your possession of stupid, worthless books — they are your burden and your shame. Godspeed.