How To Style The Trendiest Accessory Of The Season: Your Bookcase
Mr Michael Hoppen’s bookshelves at his London residence. Photograph courtesy of Mr Michael Hoppen
Were shoes ever really the first thing people noticed about a man? After 106 days of wearing slippers, I’m not sure I can remember. Covid-19 has changed the way we make first impressions for good. The adoption of agile working has accelerated and savvy businesses are realising they don’t need to invest quite so heavily in real estate. The office will return, so the consensus goes, but we’ll be there less often, which means fewer deals struck in boardrooms and more negotiating from your sofa while trying to stop the kids using it as a rocket ship.
Footwear – tartan or otherwise – won’t play much of a part. But the mise en scène over your shoulder certainly will. Scrutinising people’s Zoom backgrounds has become a minor national sport. During lockdown there has been such a proliferation of people on TV talking in front of their bookshelves that it spawned a 100k Twitter account reviewing their efforts (one recent entry: “It looks like he is just back from an over-excited trip to the library”).
“Kitchen? Too messy. Bedroom? Too weird. A blank wall? Too much like a hostage video. A bookcase, on the other hand, is both aesthetically pleasing and personal without being unprofessional”
And it’s not just on social media. In May, Minister for the Cabinet Office Mr Michael Gove drew the attention of the national press when eagle-eyed viewers spotted a book by the Holocaust denier Mr David Irving on his shelf. At the other end of the spectrum, in March, a carefully staged photograph from Kensington Palace of the Duchess of Cambridge sitting before her bookshelf provoked the kind of spike in sales for cloth-bound editions of Middlemarch normally enjoyed by the designers she wears.
A bookshelf is indeed the correct choice when it comes to broadcasting from your home. You only have to consider the alternatives to see why. Kitchen? Too messy. Bedroom? Too weird. A blank wall? Too much like a hostage video. A bookcase, on the other hand, is both aesthetically pleasing and personal without being unprofessional.
That is, of course, provided you get it right. Book-based posturing can be a thorny business and people can spot a phoney a mile off. The first rule is always to be authentic and use books you’ve actually read (or at least intend to). Beyond that, here’s our guide to nailing the unlikely style accessory of the year.
01. Pick your bookcase
Mr Carl Turner is the founder of Surtees Furniture, a bespoke design studio in London. He says there’s been a spike in requests for bookcases since lockdown. “The current trend is to have odd-sized spaces in an asymmetric arrangement in wood and metal,” he says. “This is a modern style, which allows people to display different size books and objects.”
If you’re someone with a small book collection, a taste for awkwardly shaped coffee-table tomes and modernist ornaments, this is probably the style for you. “They look great with plant pots and objets d’art in carefully placed strategic spots,” says Mr Turner. “Go for a light wood if you want a softer look or, for something sharper, reflective surfaces such as high-gloss lacquer or glass.”
But let’s say you’re a real bookworm with a library to match. Here, Mr Turner recommends something more traditional and, ideally, antique for reasons of style as well as space. “A period piece of furniture will add a well-travelled feel to a room, so it’s perfect for a collection of leather-bound first editions,” he says. “It’s definitely a talking point of any well curated home, even if you’re doing your talking on Zoom.”
Decide where you sit on the modern/traditional spectrum and invest accordingly. Or, if you’re really pushing the boat out, get something made to suit.
02. Arrange your books
Mr John Self is a literary critic for The Guardian and The Irish Times, among many other publications. He is also a passionate advocate of the bookshelf background. “They give people the sense that you have something going on in your life outside work,” he says. “And if people get bored with what you’re saying, it gives them something else to do.”
But what about arranging the books? People with a more visual eye often go for the colour-coded system, which essentially turns your bookshelf into a rainbow or one of those paint sampler charts from Homebase. If you’re a keen traveller, that inevitably means half a shelf of blue Lonely Planets and an annoyingly tatty section of Ordnance Survey maps, but otherwise, it’s everything jumbled in together.
“Organising by colour sometimes gets a bad reputation, but some of the most well-read people I know organise their books by colour,” says Mr Thatcher Wine, founder and CEO of Juniper Books and the world’s most sought-after celebrity book curator.
He disagrees with the most commonly levelled opposition to colour-coding – that it makes it harder to find specific books. “Once we have held a book for hours in our hands, the visual association with what the book looks like is strong, so it’s easier than you might think to find a particular book again in a sea of colours,” he says.
“You’ve got to have busy shelves, maybe some books stacked on top or doubled up. It says, ‘I’m overflowing with ideas’”
If colour-coding still isn’t for you, you might want to go for the traditional alphabetical-by-author or grouped-by-genre approach. To truly summon the spirit of your grouchy school librarian, go one step further with the official Dewey Decimal system, which combines both – alphabetical by author within grouped genres. If you’re a man with a lot of non-fiction or you enjoy tutting at your friends over a pair of spectacles, this probably makes sense.
Whichever system you go for, “You’ve got to have busy shelves, maybe some books stacked on top or doubled up,” says Mr Self. “It says, ‘I’m overflowing with ideas.’ Not too neat, or they look like you bought them by the yard.”
Mr Wine, meanwhile, likes to mix in other objects. “I love to have the books on a shelf fill up two-thirds of the space, then use the remaining third for objects that also tell a story, perhaps a picture frame, something of sentimental value or an item collected on your travels,” he says. “You’re inviting the world to look at your shelves, in person or online, and learn something about you.”
What both men are describing here could be viewed like the pocket square stuffed into your suit. It’s the small, ruffled touch that makes it yours. The idea is to look lived in, not made for display. Or as fashion designer Sir Hardy Amies may have put it, “A man should look as if he’s bought his books with intelligence, put them on the shelf with care and then forgotten all about them.”
03. Choose your books
Now we’re at the fun part. Obviously, books are about personal taste. Let no man judge what any other likes to read for half an hour before he goes to bed. That said, when it comes to arranging your collection to make a good impression, there may be some books you prefer to emphasise over others.
“A mixture of both fiction and non-fiction conveys seriousness and creativity,” says Mr Self, touching on that most important of concepts: balance. A single copy of Alan Shearer: My Story So Far, for example, may convey a charming love of the national game. But, if it’s next to 10 other autobiographies of 1990s Newcastle United footballers, it’s going to look more like a case of arrested development. Equally, it’s all well and good owning lots of classics, but a bookshelf stuffed with nothing but sombre black spines, particularly if they’ve clearly never been cracked open, could make you seem a little pretentious and dull.
In the end, the best thing your bookshelf can say about you is that you’re curious – about life, people and the world outside. It should say you’re willing to expand your horizons, challenge your perspectives and look at the world through the eyes of others, even if, just sometimes, you fall asleep in your chair trying.
Mr Loverman by Ms Bernardine Evaristo
The current winner of the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other has written many other great novels. This one, about a sharply-dressed Antiguan coming out of the closet at the tender age of 75, is among her best.
Madame Bovary by Mr Gustave Flaubert
A masterpiece of French realism, this is a classic with the rare advantage of being an absolute breeze to read and therefore carrying none of the try-hard connotations of War And Peace or Moby Dick. Also, full of great fashion tips.
An African In Greenland by Mr Tété-Michel Kpomassie
A teenager in Togo discovers a book about the Inuit and decides a life of ice-fishing is for him. After years spent getting there, he finds a culture rife with of boredom, alcoholism and ritualised partner swapping.
The Five: The Untold Lives Of The Women Killed By Jack The Ripper by Ms Hallie Rubenhold
This book is a historical corrective to the way we glamorise serial killers, but also a brilliant insight into life and politics in Victorian England. And much better than the Jack the Ripper Museum.
Florida by Ms Lauren Groff
One of former President Barack Obama’s favourite writers, Ms Lauren Groff’s stories – set in the sweltering, snake-filled wildernesses of her adopted state – are like fever dreams you can’t shake off. Thankfully, no mention of the Mar-a-Lago Club.
How To Be An Antiracist by Mr Ibram X Kendi
One of the leading professors in the US unpacks the concept of being antiracist, rather than “not racist” or “colourblind” in a way that is clear, empathetic and, finally, galvanising.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Mr Ocean Vuong
Everyone has a textbook of Mr Ted Hughes and Mr William Wordsworth left on their shelf from high school. Try this prize-winning collection about sexuality and manhood from one of the most exciting talents in modern poetry instead.
Three Women by Ms Lisa Taddeo
The subject of many dinner-party dissections last year, former Esquire writer Ms Lisa Taddeo explores sex and gender power dynamics from the perspective of three “ordinary” women, in a style as enjoyable as any novel.
We Are The Weather by Mr Jonathan Safran Foer
A book on climate change for people who want to feel hopeful rather than completely depressed. The situation is bad, Mr Jonathan Safran Foer tells us, but there’s something you can do: go vegan for breakfast.
The Outrun by Ms Amy Liptrot
What starts as a familiar tale of addiction and excess in London evolves into a modern masterpiece of nature writing set deeper and deeper in the Orkney Islands. Likely to make you book a plane north.