The biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘Of the making of many books there is no end.’ On the evidence of various spats on social media recently, as well as the very funny twitter account Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), this should be amended to, ‘Of the display of books there is no end.’
I’ve done my fair share of ‘shelfies’(i.e. photos of book shelves), but this pandemic has led to a bit of reassessment. Unlike many clergy, my set-up for Zoom meetings and streamed and recorded services is not in front of book shelves.
Rather, I’ve set my screen up in front of some curtains in the study. This has led to my bishop, the frabjous Mark Middleton, suffragan Bishop of Middleton (amongst others) to wonder what lies behind them. Indeed, my set-up does rather look like I’m making an announcement before the curtain goes up on an Alan Ayckbourn play.
The near ubiquity of ‘book shelf/case’ shots in religious and non-religious ‘broadcast’ settings has led me to wonder what is going on in my own case (I want to be clear: I don’t wish to criticise anyone who has a book-based backdrop for worship, interviews etc).
Then it came to me: right here, right now, when – despite being effectively forced to shield – I feel, ironically, more exposed to the world than ever (because of the constant demands of streaming and virtual meetings), I feel a deep need to keep something back for myself.
What I want to keep back is my books. Not because I’m worried that someone will spot a dodgy book,* but because these artefacts are personal treasure. My library brings me hope and comfort. It represents a vast hinterland of cultural accretion and story-telling. And, as a person living alone but living – in a small beer way – a public life, I want at this time to keep them for me.
I want to rejoice in the private delight of books. In saying this, I want to reiterate: I don’t criticise anyone who has a book-based backdrop for worship, interviews etc. Rather, I want to say this: at a time of crisis, I think we need to find that which comforts, heals and grants us encouragement and rest. For me, it lies in the delight of books … their physicality … their presence … and most of all, for the worlds of wonder and thought they contain. And that delight, right now, is not for public display.
* For what it’s worth, I’ve read and own a whole panoply of books which I’m sure some prig will decide are dodgy, should be banned from canon, etc.