When my other half and I went house-hunting for a place to live together last year, I had two clear criteria. First, there had to be a bath. (I firmly believe that time spent in the bath is integral to maintaining a healthy state of mind.) Second, there had to be bookshelves. A lot of them.
I have always read voraciously and I don’t own a Kindle. There’s something satisfying about holding a tangible copy of a book in my hands and keeping place with a bookmark rather than being told by an automaton that I am ‘55 per cent complete’. Also, I’d be worried about dropping any gadget in the bath (see above).
All of this means that I own a lot of books, hence the need for shelves. In the end, we did find somewhere with both a bath and the necessary shelving which, having moved in last autumn, I rapidly overfilled.
I didn’t think much about my bookshelves after that, but then lockdown happened and they became a talking point. This was partly because we started having video meetings, which offered intriguing insights into the home lives of our colleagues. Zoom conference calls depicted Andy from HR before a wall of A to Z true crime and Karyn from Accounts showcasing a stack of Ottolenghi cookbooks.
It was also because politicians kept insisting on posting media-friendly photos of themselves working from home. The chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak revealed an unexpected penchant for Chaucer, while Dominic Raab did a TV interview with some bizarrely arranged books on a window-ledge, including the autobiography of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It reminded me of a picture of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet taken while he was under house arrest in London in 1999, which showed his library contained a novel by Paulo Coelho, a writer famous for The Alchemist – the kind of book one might expect Pinochet to have found full of namby-pamby self-help nonsense.
What struck me most about these examples was not just that the person in question wanted to read the books, but that a choice must have been made to keep those volumes on display, knowing images of them would be disseminated widely.
Of course we should be able to read books that don’t chime with other people’s perceptions of us. But for me there’s a difference between the books I want to read, the ones I want to keep on my shelves and the ones I want on display during a Zoom chat. I read Mein Kampf as a history student then returned it to the library. I wouldn’t want a copy of Mein Kampf on my bookshelves, because my bookshelves are where I keep books I cherish and wish to revisit, not books written by evil Nazis.
Nor would I want a copy of Mein Kampf behind my head during an online video call – not because I believe in shutting down free thought, but because I would hate anyone to assume it was a book I liked enough to give a permanent space in my home.
I thought this was a fairly uncontroversial viewpoint until I was asked on BBC’s Newsnight to discuss it. Shortly afterwards, I faced a barrage of trolling on Twitter for being ‘too vain’ or ‘too woke’ or ‘too thick’ for not displaying Mein Kampf on my shelves. A few viewers erroneously claimed that I believed in burning books I didn’t agree with. Ironic that I was being accused of acting like a Nazi for not wanting a Nazi memoir in my home.
So let me be clear: it’s not that I don’t believe in the liberty to read whatever you want. But if space is at a premium, as it is for most of us, then I believe it’s better to give it to books that improve your soul and enlighten your mind.
For everything else, there’s the library.
This week I’m…
Citizen Kane and using lockdown to catch up on my cultural blind spots. Turns out it’s really quite a good movie… Who knew?