Bookshelves in the time of COVID: Pundits pay attention

People, let’s get organized. I am losing valuable fretting time listening to the End of Days travails offered by the parade of cable pundits. And it’s not because of what they’re saying. What I do care about is what’s behind them. The bric a brac, the backdrops, the “props.” What they choose to show to, well…the entire world.

On a recent edition of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, Ian Bremmer spoke while inexplicably crammed into a very tight corner against a tufted armchair.  And what was the raison d’etre for that plywood leaning against his wall? An Etsy project gone wrong? Potential firewood?


I had more luck taking in the wise words of Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who had very little as a backdrop which ultimately led my mind to wonder. “If you’re going to place anything behind you to be seen by a national TV audience, why chose two candles, one irregular vase and a plastic “In” box?”


Bookshelves are particularly distracting. But it’s not what’s
in the shelves; it’s the bookshelves themselves that speak, indeed, shout, volumes.

Who can listen to The Economist’s wonderful Zanny Minton Beddoes talk about the EU when the otherwise orderly white bookshelves behind her are filled with books that need straightening! Not all of them, to be sure, but enough. Sure Zanny, you are supremely bright and informative but how can I listen to you when that small percentage of books are tilting this way and that?

The opposite was true for the Washington Post’s Barkha Dutt from whom I was distracted because her bookshelves are frighteningly uber-organized. A sparse display. Not on every shelf. But the books in evidence were not only color coordinated but stood on each shelf in descending size order…like a kindergarten class lined up for recess. Red books politely stood in line. Blue books positioned neatly. No tilting. Not leaning. Good on you, Barkha….now what were you saying about the fate of India? Oh, sorry I missed it.

I cannot leave chez Dutt without mentioning that besides having the most orderly bookshelves on CNN, Dutt also displayed an astonishing array of statuette awards. Was it possible she had won what looked like 8 Emmys? And what were those tinier statues nearby? Surely Barkha wasn’t a Tony winner as well? Thankfully the camera switched to a correspondent for the Financial Times, Valerie Hopkins.

I was involved with her take on how Orban is strangling his country’s freedoms and then the camera angle widened. Oh, no. The perky Ms. Hopkins was perched against a backdrop of the world’s saddest array of plants. Pathetically scrawny, it was the scraggliest bunch of greenery I’d ever seen. Someone should tell this lovely woman that her plant collection is an unsightly disaster.

On Morning Joe a California doctor’s magical bookshelves captivated me. They spiraled in a looping S-shape holding apparently gravity-defying books. Some books were nearly horizontal to the floor. As he intoned patient stats, all I could wonder was had he Krazy-glued his whole library?

On Stephanie Ruhl, Andrew Ross Sorkin was concise and informative. His bookshelves were orderly. Orderly but also a diversion. First off the shelves were a mandarin red, not a color I have ever seen on bookshelves. They were flanked by a turmeric yellow wall. Was Andrew seated in a Panda Express? Plus, nearly all of his many books are exactly the same height. This is not a phenomenon that occurs in nature. How do you amass only books that stand 8 inches tall?

What can you expect? After all, no one ever told these panelists their den would have to function as a TV studio. So let’s even the playing field with a cheap fix. I realized the only non-distracting backdrop I’d seen was a simple brick wall. Since not everyone has such a wall, why not go a little DIY.

The fix? Contact paper. Cheap brick contact paper. Lots of options. There’s the weathered West Elm “West End” contact paper or “Jomax Red” from Home Depot. Pushpin it to the wall. Hammer it. Within minutes… a backdrop so boring viewers will have no choice but to hang on your every word.

So, when this is all over, I want some changes made. This is for you, Zanny Minton Beddoes. Straighten those books!

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