Bookshelves behind the talking heads

Bookshelves behind the talking heads

One result of the coronavirus is that the majority of news interviews on television are coming from people's homes, whether they be professional broadcasters, celebrities or the general public. They tend to get a bit tedious after a while and it is easy to find yourself examining the backdrop. This is invariably a bookshelf or a couple of weird paintings that are often far more interesting than what the person is actually saying.

It can be fun trying to see if you share a taste in books with whoever is talking. Admittedly, attempting to read book titles sideways is not an easy task. It also feels a bit sneaky, as if you are intruding on their personal space.

Some bookcases are suspiciously immaculate, with books neatly lined up and perhaps a famous tome like War and Peace or A Brief History of Time strategically facing the viewers to let them know they are dealing with a scholar. I would also be a bit wary about anyone who has Ulysses prominently displayed. It brings to mind Mark Twain's observation, "a literary classic is a book which people praise and don't read."

More authentic are the cluttered bookshelves in wonderful random disorder that suggests they are in active use. They give us a chance to spot anything from The Da Vinci Code to Winnie-the-Pooh, or Wisden cricket almanacs.

However, I have yet to spot 50 Shades of Grey on any shelf.


It's not just bookshelves. One female meteorologist in the US feared she might be disciplined after her two cats joined in her weather forecast from home, snuggling down and looking quite content. But the cats turned out to be a hit with viewers and many now tune in to her show just to see how the moggies are getting on.

Kids also have a habit of appearing at the wrong time. This week a mother was in the middle of an interview with the BBC when her young daughter appeared and understandably wanted to know the name of the strange man her mum was talking to.

Sometimes the backdrop reveals more than we need to know. A male Spanish journalist was giving a live report from his home recently when a half-naked lady wandered into the background frame. It turned out it wasn't his wife, which kept the Spanish tabloids going for a few days.

Horses for courses

British playwright Alan Bennett wrote: "A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot."

It will probably come as no surprise that when Britain's Prince Charles was interviewed recently, his backdrop appeared to include a generous number of books about horses, with thriller writer Dick Francis being prominent.

Well represented in the bookcase of Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was Ian Rankin. The Scottish leader is apparently a fan of the chief character in Rankin's books, policeman John Rebus who spends most of his time in the murkier parts of Edinburgh drinking Scotch and eating stale pies. One suspects Sturgeon's diet is a bit more wholesome.

Sturgeon dryly observed last year that she felt Rebus would have voted for Scottish independence, although Rankin quickly countered that Rebus was a "remainer", explaining "he fears change … he is very set in his ways."

An intriguing backdrop for actress Cate Blanchett featured a complete 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). There's nothing like a bit of light reading in between tackling tricky film scripts. No wonder Cate always seems so eloquent when she speaks.

Dog tickler

Maybe Blanchett should get together with Ammon Shea, an American who read the entire OED from cover-to-cover. It took him almost one year. Just imagine, that's 59 million words or 21,730 pages. And there's not even a plot. It certainly puts reading the average 350-page novel in its place. Out of curiosity I tried reading just the first page of an English dictionary and my head was spinning before even arriving at "abbey".

Shea later wrote a book on the more intriguing words he came across. One that is particularly useful is "bayard", said to be "a person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance". So it looks like we have an alternative word for "politician".

Dog lovers might be interested in "acnestis", which concerns "that part of an animal's back that the animal cannot reach to scratch".

So next time you are playing with your doggie please give it a little tickle on the acnestis. It could spark some serious tail-wagging.

Lost for words

For those who struggle on the social circuit, Shea discovered "deipnophobia", meaning "a fear of dinner parties". That could be a handy topic with which to break the ice next time you are stuck at such a party and can't think of anything witty to say.

One word that caught the eye is "onomatomania" which means "vexation in having difficulty finding the right word". I know that feeling well. Another far too close to home is "somnificator", "one who induces sleep in others". Anyone still awake?

Perhaps the most uncomfortable word Shea came up with was "paracme". If you are on the receiving end of that word you are in trouble. It refers to "the point at which one's prime is past".

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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