Imagine that you are a member of the expert class — the kind of person invited to pontificate on television news programs. Under normal circumstances, your expertise might be signaled to the public by a gaudy photograph of skyscrapers superimposed behind your head. But now the formalities of the broadcast studio are a distant memory, and the only tools to convey that you truly belong on television are the objects within your own home. There’s only one move: You talk in front of a bookcase.
As the broadcast industry shelters in place, the bookcase has become the background of choice for television hosts, executives, politicians and anyone else keen on applying a patina of authority to their amateurish video feeds. In March, when the coronavirus put the handshaking and baby-kissing mode of presidential campaigning on pause, Joe Biden conspicuously retreated from public view for several long days as his team scrambled to project an air of competence from within Biden’s basement. When he finally re-emerged, it was in front of a carefully curated wall-length bookshelf punctuated with patriotic memorabilia like a worn leather football and a triangle-folded American flag.
In April, an anonymous Twitter account, Bookcase Credibility, emerged to keep an eye on the trend and quickly accumulated more than 30,000 followers. Its tagline is “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you,” and it offers arch commentary on the rapidly solidifying tropes of the genre as well as genuine respect for a well-executed specimen. YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki appears before “a standard credibility wallpaper presentation in the unthreatening homely style.” Migrants’ rights activist Minnie Rahman’s Encyclopaedia Britannica collection “is a lazy hand wafted at convention.” And British politician Liam Fox’s “bold grab at credibility is somewhat undermined by the hardback copy of The Da Vinci Code.”
The aesthetics of credibility often go overlooked. The look of cerebral authority is highly specific — in this country, credibility looks like a white man in a dark suit — but it is also blandly inflexible. It gains strength from its constancy over time. It is a superficial choice for people who pretend to reject superficial choices. But now the pandemic has unlocked a whole new canvas for signifying respectability, and for judging it: home décor.
Grading the video conference backgrounds of public figures has become a pandemic parlor game. For a certain class of people, the home must function not only as a pandemic hunkering nest but also be optimized for presentation to the outside world. The Twitter account Room Rater assesses lighting, angles, tidiness and accessorizing and then assigns a score out of 10. (David Frum could use a “plant to soften the space”: 7.) A carefully appointed background wall can delight (as when John Oliver appeared on the “Wendy Williams Show” in front of a painting of Wendy Williams) or it can distract (as when Jamie Dornan filmed himself from the bathroom in an attempt to make his enviable celebrity domicile appear “normal”).
The bookcase offers both a visually pleasing surface and a gesture at intellectual depth. Of all the quarantine judgments being offered right now, this one feels harmless enough. One gets the sense that for the bookcase-background type, being judged by their home libraries is a secret dream finally realized. Spectators hunt their shelves for clues as if examining a puzzle in a highbrow version of Highlights for Children: They have discovered that Pete Buttigieg owns Thomas Piketty’s “Capital,” Paul Rudd has “Jude the Obscure,” and Broadway actress Melissa Errico displays a volume called “Irish Erotic Art.”
But often the titles of the books themselves are not legible through the screen; all that can be ascertained is the overall vibe. The presence of gilded, leather bound volumes can overwhelm the expert’s own expertise, recalling the props in an ad for a personal injury lawyer; a library so extensive that it requires a “Beauty and the Beast” style ladder inspires grudging respect.
Treating a book as a purely aesthetic object is often seen as an affront to intellectual credibility. In recent years, the bookcase aesthetic has been heavily influenced by the design sensibilities of Instagram, in which books are often arranged not by author or subject but by color and height, in undulating rainbow waves that resist functionality. Services arose to supply literary ornamentation, selling visually pleasing books by the meter.
At the height of the pretty bookcase trend, some decorators even suggested displaying books spine-in, flouting the intellectual claim of the library completely in favor of a soothing neutral expanse. When the lifestyle influencer Lauren Conrad filmed a tutorial video in which she slashed into books and put their hollowed-out husks on display, she sparked such outrage that she deleted all evidence of her deed.
The credibility bookcase, with its towering, idiosyncratic array of worn volumes, is itself an affectation. The expert could choose to speak in front of his art prints or his television or his blank white walls, but he chooses to be framed by his books. It is the most insidious of aesthetic trends: one that masquerades as pure intellectual exercise.
It is remarkable how quickly the bookcase has become obligatory, how easily it has been integrated into the brittle aesthetic rules of authority. The appearance of the credibility bookcase suggests that the levers of expertise and professionalism are operating normally, even though they are very much not. There is a hint of tender vulnerability embedded in these authoritative displays.
At a time when even our appointed experts rarely know what’s really going on, the veneer of respectability is always at risk of tumbling down. Last week, the ABC correspondent Will Reeve appeared on “Good Morning America” in front of a highly credible bookcase featuring an antique-style clock and a shimmering golden urn. He was not wearing any pants.