Shameless shelf promotion

An Irishman’s Diary on the rise of the ‘shelfie’

‘The new big thing, at least for the better class of egomaniac, is the shelfie: a portrait of one’s book-shelf (or shelves, preferably), disseminated via social media to an admiring world.’ Above, Frank McNally’s shelfie

‘The new big thing, at least for the better class of egomaniac, is the shelfie: a portrait of one’s book-shelf (or shelves, preferably), disseminated via social media to an admiring world.’ Above, Frank McNally’s shelfie

Thu, Dec 19, 2013, 17:02

Never mind the selfie. Word of the year or not, that’s already so last season. The new big thing, at least for the better class of egomaniac, is the shelfie: a portrait of one’s book-shelf (or shelves, preferably), disseminated via social media to an admiring world.

It started quietly, as these things do. The early shelf-promoters were individual book-shops and the occasional literary enthusiast. But the phenomenon gathered momentum recently when Britain’s Guardian newspaper invited readers to share pictures on the theme.

And even allowing that, vis-a-vis literature use, Guardian readers are a known high-risk group, the resultant deluge of photographed book collections must have come as a pleasant surprise to what’s left of the print industry. Clearly, the triumph of the Kindle is not yet complete.

Whatever the wisdom of advertising one’s personal library in this way, I can understand the fascination others might have with looking at it. After all, a well-stocked bookshelf can tell you a lot more about its owner than his or her portrait.

Browsing an unguarded book collection is like reading someone’s personnel file, or medical records. At the least, it usually provides an ice-breaker at those awkward stages of house parties, before the alcohol takes effect.

But then, book-shelves are usually to some extent edited for public view. Because just as visitors can study them for insights about the owner, so the owner can use them to project an image. And there’s nothing new about that.

As long ago as the 1740s, Jonathan Swift may have identified a very early, pre-photography manifestation of the shelfie, while visiting his friends in that well-known (and still thriving) Monaghan establishment: Castle Leslie.

He commemorated the occasion in verse: “Here I am in Castle Leslie/With rows and rows of books/Among the shelves/Written by the Leslies/All about themselves.” And no, that doesn’t quite scan. But for both wit and cheek, it compares well with the average contribution to a big-house guest book, which is where he wrote it.

It was no exaggeration, either. The Leslies have by their own count clocked up about 200 books down the generations, many of them autobiographical. That’s a shelfie few households could rival.

Two centuries after Swift, another great satirist – this newspaper’s Myles na gCopaleen – had a rather different class of client than the Leslies in mind when he announced his famous “book-handling” service of 1941. But that too concerned shelf-portraiture.

Specifically, as he explained, the service was aimed at the “wealthy but illiterate”. For a not-so-small fee, he and his staff would maul their book collections so as to give the impression that the owners read a lot (or at all), instead of devoting their every waking hour to the accumulation of money.

The service began with level 1 – “popular handling”, viz: “Four leaves in each book to be dog-eared, with a tram-ticket, cloakroom docket, or other comparable object inserted as a forgotten book-mark. Say, £1 7s/6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.” From there, it graduated steeply, via “premier” and “deluxe” classes, to the highest level: the “Traitement Superbe”.

In this, books would be distressed, first by a qualified handler, then by a master practitioner with at least “550 handling hours” to his credit: “suitable passages in not less than 50 per cent of the books to be underlined in good quality red ink”, with appropriate comments added in the margins, including “How very true!”, “yes, but cf Homer, Od. iii 151”, and “I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.”

Sadly, even in 1941, such loving detail might have been wasted on all but the nosiest house guests. And it would definitely be superfluous to the modern, photographed shelfie (except maybe the bit, in Myles’s “De Luxe” service, where the spines of smaller books were manhandled to suggest they’d been “carried around in pockets”.

But as the 21st-century form of shelf-promotion gathers popularity, there may yet be a gap in the market for professional shelf-help consultants, who will arrange the overall appearance of book collections for optimal effect.

On a case-by-case basis, they could advise clients whether to aim for a visual aesthetic – breaking up the rows of books here and there with a potted plant or figurine – or conversely, to project the chaos of a cluttered intellect, with shelves crammed, and overspilling onto floor-space, window ledges, etc.

And perhaps the service might be more fundamental on occasion. Even now, there must be a few of Myles’s ideal clients left who, as well as requiring their book collections to be arranged, might also need them supplied, and would be happy to pay, by weight or volume as appropriate.

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