Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
Books are a symbol of erudition and authority. During this COVID-19 quarantine, with reporters and pundits forced to deliver news and opinion from their homes, a well-stocked bookshelf has become the essential prop. The reputation of experts rests upon our belief that they know what they’re talking about, that they’re well read and up on the latest culturally relevant books. What better way to demonstrate one’s breadth of knowledge than to pose in front of a carefully curated library? It doesn’t have to match the Great Library of Alexandria, but it doesn’t pay to skimp. The Portuguese recently demanded the resignation of their Minister of Education on the grounds that he conducted a video conference with no books in the background.
The bookshelves of famous people have become the subject of considerable scrutiny and, let’s face it, a bit of voyeuristic pleasure. I’m no “room rater,” but I’ve moved closer to the TV, turning my head this way and that, squinting at titles and marveling at the attractive way the books have been displayed. Some shelves exhibit a perfect symmetry of vertical spines and horizontal stacks, some are color coordinated, all are interspersed with photographs and objets d’art. But it’s the titles that tell the tale. What do they say about a person?
It’s titillating to think the bookshelf affords a peek into its owner’s soul. “You are what you read,” said Oscar Wilde. And there, laid bare for all to see and judge, are the books that reveal these talking heads’ tastes and passions and cultural frame of reference. Which authors hold pride of place? What range of subjects is represented? I strain my eyes for clues, but legibility is a problem. I can pick out only a few titles, most of them dead serious. Economics, politics, history, biography. With everyone’s mind on plague and pestilence, it’s not surprising that Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror appears in several collections and a couple of times I’ve spotted the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The gravitas of these tomes creates an impression of extreme braininess, assuming of course they’ve actually been read.
Maybe it’s my eyes, but none of them look particularly well thumbed. And if you watch the same show from week to week, you can’t help but notice that the books never move. They’re always in the same location – almost as if they were…well, wallpaper. But even if some of these magnum opuses were placed on the shelf for effect, even if some have never been opened – heck, everybody has a pile of aspirational books we mean to delve into one of these days. Literary behemoths on the order of Moby Dick and Ulysses stare back at us, waiting for a blue moon, or a pandemic that keeps us socially isolated for months on end.
Most of us also have a smattering of pulpier reads tucked in amidst the profundity. There’s bound to be at least one lowbrow title over that TV anchor’s shoulder. I scan the shelves for a glimpse of a smutty romance – maybe Fifty Shades of Grey or something in the self-help line, I Heart Me or You Are A Badass. So far I’ve spied nary a bodice ripper, but as I’ve said, the titles are blurry. I guess any infra dig novels the camera might catch are culled prior to going live.
It’s encouraging for us crime writers to see that not all genre fiction is hidden from view. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, isn’t embarrassed to let it be known she enjoys a good murder, provided the author is Scottish. She evidently owns every book Ian Rankin and Val McDermid have ever written. Although Prince Charles’s shelves don’t contain any recent whodunnits, he reads Dick Francis, who incidentally was jockey to his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Given the homage paid to Inspector Morse in the city of Oxford, it would probably be considered unpatriotic of the heir to the British throne not to keep a collection of Colin Dexters somewhere about the castle. And Tom Clancy’s espionage thriller The Bear and the Dragon stands at attention between histories of the Civil War and WWII in American General Carter Ham’s bookcase.
It’s been a very long lockdown. We’ve all done a lot of reading. Perhaps some of us have enjoyed a little too much coziness and gone to the noir side…”felt the edge of the carving knife and studied our husband’s neck.” By now anything might have turned up behind that multi-volume set of Harvard Classics. Better not sit in front of the bookshelf during your next Zoom happy hour.