What’s on the Bookshelf Behind the Speaker

As I watch the PBS news hour, sometimes I am more fascinated with the books on the shelf behind Judy Woodruff than the news she presents.  Ron Chernow’s Grant has a special place on her shelf, and it is conveniently positioned sideways – easy to read the title. When the small box appears in the upper right hand corner to illustrate the story being presented, I wonder at the vase of flowers under it.  Are those peonies?  They must be silk flowers because they never fade.  I am easily distracted, especially when the news is information I would rather not hear.

When the camera blurs the background or is too far away for me to see the titles, I get annoyed.  When the shelves only have a vase and a totem, I wonder if the correspondent either does not read or is too private to expose the books her or she prefers.  Someone said a room is not a room without books. Books, like some of those presented as background when the speaker is talking from home, not a studio, can reveal not only tastes and preferences, but also a predilection for topics framing the speaker’s education or enthusiasms.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review offered a slate in “What Do Famous People’s Bookshelves Reveal?”   It was no surprise to see two books about horses on the shelves of the future King of England.  Prince Charles has “Shattered” by Dick Francis – from the master of the equine thriller, a novel of horse-racing, and “Stubbs” by Basil Taylor –a biography of the 18th-century English painter best known for his depictions of horses.

Hollywood icons reveal themselves when being interviewed, but look at the books behind them to get the real picture.  Actress Kate Blanchett’s 20 volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary makes me wonder if she has an inordinate love of language, a need to factcheck her words, or just the  tendency to pack her shelves with neutral fare. Actor Paul Rudd’s “Code of Conduct” by Brad Thor – the 15th installment in Thor’s thriller series with hero counterterrorism operative Scot Harvath could be research for a new movie.

A viewer created a list of the books behind comedian Stephen Colbert’s stay at home library, revealing books from authors he had Interviewed in past shows, many with political and historic themes.  Among them:

  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter
  • All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt byJohn Taliafierro
  • Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

But there are also:

  • Born Standing Up, A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
  • The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

And, sharp-eyed SNL At Home viewers noticed actor/comedian Larry David had Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein and David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49 among the titles on his home shelf, while he was channeling Bernie Sanders on air.   On the One World: Together at Home special, fans may have noticed Kerry Washington’s color-coordinated books behind her –  all yellow books on one shelf and all the red covers on another.  Evidently, J.K. Rowling likes the color coded system too.

“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’m always curious about what someone else has and is reading.  I was excited to see Hilary Mantel’s new book The Mirror and the Light on a table in the background of former Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s house while Stephen Colbert interviewed him.

On your next Zoom book club call, you might want to impress viewers with how well-read you are – or wish you were – with a backdrop of books.

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