Do you find yourself scanning the bookcases in people’s rooms when you’re on zoom, looking to see what titles they have on their shelves? Do you worry that others are doing the same to you?
I’d never thought about it before, so it came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I discovered (article in the UK FT 16/1/21) that curating books on bookshelves to make people look good is actually a thing! There is now an official Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility).
It seems choosing books for others to look at (as opposed to read) is quite big business. For example, there is a bookseller in London who curates the books that viewers see in films by Mike Leigh, Jane Campion or Guy Ritchie.
The key we’re told is authenticity – not looking like you are trying too hard or burying pulp fiction underneath worthy biographical tomes. The very thought! It is due to the intervention of said London bookseller, apparently, that James Bond in the film Skyfall is seen to have copies of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel books as well as stuff about Aston Martin. If you looked closely enough on this one also you would see Birds of the West Indies by one James Bond, a book which genuinely belonged to Ian Fleming from where the writer cribbed his spy’s famous moniker.
Penguin Random House offers themed “credibility bookshelves”. There are even categories: “Literary Heavyweight” would involve books by Ta-Nehisi Coates (my review of his The Water Dancer is here in case anyone wants to actually read it rather than peer at the cover) and Zadie Smith. If you are go for the “Classics Collector” look, you will get sent Austen and Brontë.
On the other hand, you could just turn your laptop around to keep your reading preferences private – the way they always used to be.
One way to never ever have to worry about what’s behind you in that zoom shot is to buy more poetry – and more books from Indie Presses such as Verve Press,Little Toller Books, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Pushkin Press. Speaking of Pushkin Press, I have just read a debut novel called Little Gods by Meng Jin.
Review of Little Gods Meng Jin (Pushkin Press)
I’m on a tour of the Far East at the moment bookishly speaking. First of all I read and reviewed Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters set in Malaysia and now China is centre stage in this new book from Pushkin Press, Little Gods by Meng Jin. I am also currently reading for the Japanese Literature Challenge, The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina. More on this next time.
The plot of Little Gods is as follows. The book starts with the Tiananmen Square massacre – June 1989. A young woman gives birth alone in a nearby hospital. But where is her husband? At this stage we know nothing of any of the characters, the reader just sees in the mind’s eye the horrific news images item beamed around a horrified globe by technology. (Wiki tells me that “Tiananmen” translates as “Gate of Heavenly Peace”).
Three years later, the young mother – a trained physicist – leaves China to teach at an American university, taking her baby daughter with her. It is left to the daughter to relate the story of Su Lan – the young mother, her mother – seventeen years after her birth, and to try to find what happened to her father. But Su Lan has told her nothing at all of the past and so it is left to the narrator to piece things together for herself.
Although Meng Jin does not have Menon’s startlingly original voice, in some ways the two novels have not dissimilar themes, a return to a country left behind, a feeling of not belonging properly anywhere. More questions than answers.
Little Gods is particularly interesting in terms of its character development. I say this because I felt there wasn’t really any. Although many readers on The Storygraph disagreed. There are realisations at the end of the book, but is that the same thing? Maybe it’s a start.
At its most elemental the plot concerns itself with identity – who are we if we don’t know who we are in terms of our family members and family background? Nothing especially new sounding in that idea but there are as many interpretations of it as there are humans on the planet. My question though is, if we travel thousands of miles to research our family background, as the protagonist of Little Gods how does what we find change us? Or what if we find nothing? (That’s not a spoiler alert – you’ll get nothing from me!) There has still been the courageous search, the attempt; there has still been the journey.
Su Lan has not told her daughter about the past. Why not? The narrator’s voice is deeply critical of her mother, inventing in her mind the ‘proper’ family that she would have liked to have had rather than the life she actually lived, growing up in the US in a single parent family. The key to the past is, as always, closer to home than we think.
As with all searches, the narrator of Little Gods learns about herself and the nature of sacrifice.