May 5, 2020 - 7:00am

The ballyhoo over Michael Gove’s bookshelf, as shared by Sarah Vine, has rapidly sorted into two camps representing the two familiar varieties of liberalism that make up the contemporary culture war.

On the one hand stand the defenders of Freeze Peach. I haven’t checked recently, but if Brendan O’Neil and Toby Young haven’t yet published articles defending Gove’s bookshelf in the name of Freeze Peach it’s only because they’re still working on them. On the other, we find the usual proponents of Banning Bad Ideas In The Name Of Progress.

So far, so predictable. But both sides in this stupid argument are barking up the wrong tree. The real, hidden culture war is over the extent to which it’s proper to arrange our bookshelves as an expression of our public selves, and to what extent this is an act of insufferable vanity.

On the one side are the people who carefully arrange the most recondite titles on their sitting room bookshelves, to impress visitors with their highbrow interests, while the trash paperbacks get tucked away upstairs. Anyone who does this is guaranteed to scan your bookshelves furtively when visiting and judge you on what they see.

Now, as lockdown confines us all to our own spaces, the new locus for bookshelf-titivation is social media, and to the titivators, Zoom meeting backgrounds and piles of books ‘accidentally’ in shot for that Instagram post should naturally be curated for personal branding. Thus in some quarters celebrities’ background bookshelves are a source of fascination, and we’re all being invited to ‘try a credibility bookshelf’ as the background for videoconferences. And to someone for whom its second nature to curate a bookshelf for public view, sharing a collection that included Charles Murray or David Irving would indeed imply endorsement.

But on the other side are the people who acquire books because they want to read them. Levels of organisation vary among this group: some alphabetise, some just stuff books into every nook and cranny and then use the remainder as coasters. Sarah Vine (who is I suspect rather enjoying the drama), has now posted enough of the family bookshelves on Twitter for it to be clear the Gove/Vine household is in the latter camp.

Personally, I can see both sides. I’d like to be a reader-and-stacker, but the truth is I’d rather keep my study bookshelves out of shot on Zoom than either have them scrutinised or else surrender to the urge to titivate. And the more I reflect on the covert culture war between stackers and titivators, the more intractable it seems: a contest of snobberies with taproots into radioactive areas of Britain’s history where dragons infinitely more unspeakable than Brexit lie dormant.

Ancients vs Moderns. The Glorious Revolution. The Cavaliers and Roundheads. Even the Reformation itself. It’s not about the ‘marketplace of ideas’ at all, but about substance versus performance, restraint versus exuberance, whether identity is an inner matter or outwardly conferred. And, of course, it’s filtered through the great English preoccupation with class. In short, it cuts right to the heart of who the English are in their deepest and most contradictory selves. We disturb those sleeping dragons at our peril.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.