Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Credibility Bookcase


Somehow I missed Amanda Hess's "The ‘Credibility Bookcase’ Is the Quarantine’s Hottest Accessory" in the NY Times, May 1, 2020. Beyond summaries and links to twitter accounts grading the bookcase backgrounds in Zoom interviews of various celebrities from politicians to actors, Hess emphasizes the visual effects generated by bookcases:

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. ...

But often the titles of the books themselves are not legible through the screen; all that can be ascertained is the overall vibe.  ...

Hess remarks that "The aesthetics of credibility often go overlooked." Well, not on this blog and in SCRIPT research generally. We have emphasized how iconic decoration and display of books enhances the scholarly legitimacy of their owners and manipulators (click "legitimacy" under Labels at left), and has done so nearly since the invention of writing. Hess rightly labels this an "affectation," but by also calling it "insidious" suggests that it is something new:

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.

In fact, as we have documented throughout history and across many different cultures, it is especially when authority is questioned, even challenged, that people use iconic ritualization of books to reinforce it (click "politics" under Labels at left). Hess makes that point as if it was particularly true in 2020:

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. 

In fact, that has always been the case. And this year, it is not only true for celebrities, but also for many run-of-the-mill teachers trying to maintain some semblance of authority in classes that suddenly turned virtual: