When house-bound experts appear on TV interviews via Zoom, they are almost always seated in front of a large bookcase studiously purged of the usual trash. Whether an expert is deploring executive-office overreach or dissecting the baffling enigma of structural unemployment, you will usually see a gargantuan biography of Ulysses S. Grant or Winston Churchill perched over their left shoulder. Slightly to the left you may spot a three-volume history of the Civil War or something with the ancient Roman abbreviation “S.P.Q.R.” in the title.
If the person being interviewed is a scientist, the bogus bookcase is likely to sport a dog-eared copy of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and either “Chaos” or “Genius” by James Gleick. Some showoffs might even have Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” strategically positioned to face the camera. Not to mention one of their own books. Or six. Or the remaindered books by friends they owe a favor.
But no matter what luminary is being interviewed, the background bookcases will include nothing by James Patterson or Lisa Scottoline, no thrillers by Tana French or Jo Nesbo, and definitely no autobiographies by Miley Cyrus.
We all know bookcases can get gussied up this way in a hurry. Something earthshaking has happened, but the first guest booked to talk about it has canceled, so Sanjay Gupta will be calling for an emergency Zoom chat in 30 minutes. The flummoxed, totally unprepared expert immediately panics. “Quick, get all the Clive Cussler and V.C. Andrews books off the shelves,” he cries out to his quarantined loved ones. “And somebody hide that Ozzy Osborne tell-all!”
People who regularly appear on television, or even conference calls, usually have a studiously manicured bookcase stocked with unread thumb-suckers by former Secretaries of State or Jimmy Carter, and at least two books about Abraham Lincoln. But for someone suddenly called into a Zoom chat, it’s important to give the bookcase the once-over just to make sure that nothing about Charles Manson, Eva Braun or the Kardashians is visible.