Volatile Rune

For Life and Literature in a Volatile World

Bookcase Credibility Rating – How Never to Have to Worry About it Again Plus a Bookish Tour of the Far East

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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.



11 responses to “Bookcase Credibility Rating – How Never to Have to Worry About it Again Plus a Bookish Tour of the Far East”

  1. I can’t even believe this is a thing. I do read some “embarrassing” books from time to time, but still…it’s part of who you are! I’ve loved seeing what celebrities and figures on news shows read, the NYT has done a neat feature of it (and I have a book from Fauci’s shelves waiting as a library hold at the moment!) It just seems like such a weird thing to feel like you need to curate when reading is so delightfully personal. But why am I surprised…apparently there’s a whole group of instagram influencers who don’t actually read, but are obsessed with curating instagram feeds to make it seem like they do. Ugh.

  2. There’s a TV advert I’ve seen recently where a woman is shamed into buying a new kitchen because hers looks scruffy in the back of zoom calls – but I keep wondering why she didn’t just use a digital background of a smarter kitchen – would have been a lot cheaper! The same is true of bookshelves. If people need a curated book collection just for the visual, perhaps they could just find a photo of a shelf they admire?

    • An excellent suggestion. Maybe someone has decided there is now a protocol about zoom backgrounds! How they reflect insecurity or something equally mad. A new kitchen does seem extreme.

  3. I think this is only a “thing” for people who appear on tv, I’m not video calls all day, and no one, including me, is sat in front of a bookcase! I even saw a fake “bookshelf” back drop you can buy, like a piece of fabric with pictures of books on it… lol

  4. I read an article about curated bookshelves a while back and thought it was just really strange… If you decorate your house in a way that suits your personality and you love, I don’t think you should be ashamed of showing it! It’s actually been so interesting getting to see my fellow university students’ homes over zoom – I really like how everyone’s is so different and unique to them! And even if things are a bit messy, at least I get the feeling that there’s a real, relatable person behind the screen 😁

    Whereas the really pristine backgrounds with just a shelf of classics and the latest Booker Prize winners of some public personas have me a bit skeptical. Of course, it’s wonderful if that’s what they love to read, but when those books don’t match what I know about the person, it strikes me as very strange! And then I’m just itching for someone to ask the person what they thought about those books to see if they’ve really read them 😅😂

    But then again, I am very much guilty of examining the books I see in zoom backgrounds more closely, so yes: there are people who pay attention 😁 But that’s just because I love books so much myself that I’m always immediately interested if I have read books that the other person also has! I guess I’m much too curious for my own good, since people like me have caused ridiculous trends like fake bookshelves 🙈

    • You’re right. And curiosity about books is the basis of loving them. If we weren’t curious about books there wouldn’t be libraries so yes I agree it’s a natural thing and to be celebrated.


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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