by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 5
May 2020
Idea
07:00

The hidden culture war behind Michael Gove’s bookshelf

Both sides in this stupid argument are barking up the wrong tree
by Mary Harrington
Michael Gove’s bookshelf. Credit: Sarah Vine

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.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
24 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John K
John K
2 years ago

I have far too many books and not enough shelves. They are arranged by subject, but subjects overlap. Fiction is in a different room. Even after getting rid of literally hundreds to booksellers and charity shops I still have too many. And the charity shops are closed indefinitely. I could never throw away a hardback book (perhaps an exception for Jeffrey Archer?). What to do?

However if I wanted to show off on a video call I’d place behind me some nice but not valuable original paintings, not books.

nigel.skinner13
nigel.skinner13
2 years ago

Surely this is exactly the kind of nonsense that has made us turn away from MSM to sites such as UnHerd. By covering it in an article you are giving oxygen and some credence to the initial poster of this claptrap.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

My suspicious is that very few of these people have actually read the books in front of which they Zoom. As for the Gove-Vines displaying books about Hitler and Mussolini, one can only marvel at their lack of PR instincts. Ironically, my bookshelves contain numerous books about communism and Soviet physicists and engineers etc, even though I detest the left in all its forms.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Really? I’d have said that ‘I am interested in all points of view and want to use my spare time to increase my knowledge’ was a pretty good PR statement.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

Gove’s books about Hitler and Mussolini will be standard biographical stuff by Bullock and the like. They won’t really reflect a point of view although I suppose they might add knowledge to some extent.

Among my current reading is Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Prose. That is a book that adds knowledge. I recently read Ashoka Mody’s brilliant ‘EuroTragiedy’, a book that adds knowledge and has, elegantly and subtly, a point of view.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fraser, I have a lot of books about communism and the Soviet Union too. Communism isn’t dead, and can still wreak havoc, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes painfully clear. The Russian Empire turned into the first Communist regime and created the institutional framework one still finds in the PRC, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. Knowing something about the Soviet Union is still quite useful in making sense of world affairs.

Lang Cleg
Lang Cleg
2 years ago

I have one bookcase entirely dedicated to the full Folio Society Trollope collection, which I bought annually as they were published.

This means that I win every single bookcase war from every single angle.

I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

chris9
chris9
2 years ago
Reply to  Lang Cleg

I also have all the Trollopes and have been a member of the Trollope Society for over 25 years

Lang Cleg
Lang Cleg
2 years ago
Reply to  chris9

Honourable draw? Or duel?!

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago

” In short, it cuts right to the heart of who the English are in their deepest and most contradictory selves.”

Michael Gove is Scottish. Presumably even more contradictory, lying just outside civilisation as we do.

One academic was photographed on a library ladder or suchlike on Twitter advising us what book (Irving) she was NOT retrieving from her bookshelves. I found this description of what she was not doing tremendously interesting. So much so I have almost resolved to answer her tweet by making a numerical list of the many things I am not doing, and then inviting her to respond in kind.

No. 1, having noticed a bold slogan (‘Get off my back’) on her pullover, would be ‘I am not expecting people to read my clothing’.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

Having had a closer look at the Gove-Vine book shelves on the Akkad Daily, the most shocking revelation is the presence of Blair’s autobiography. That is a book that I would not even have in the house, never mind on display. And if I saw it one of those street libraries I would take in and throw it in the bin or paper recycling, as I do with books by Dan Brown and J K Rowling etc. One has to perform these small acts of rebellion.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I am sorry but I just don’t ‘buy’ this.
That bookshelf will have been so ‘ very carefully arranged’ to reveal the inner Gove! If not by him, then almost certainly by his Mrs.
It’s another version of Desert Island Discs after all.

plynamno1
plynamno1
2 years ago

It’s been fascinating looking at TV interview participants’ bookshelves, but amusing also are the interviewees who make choices to be filmed in grand rooms, cubby holes, sitting in front of framed paintings, with crooked bookshelves away to one side, or in views so tightly focused on their glaring fizzogs ” right in our faces ” as to suggest they are auditioning to play Big Brother or Big Sister. This last group has a sub-section who’d have been well advised to avoid that looking-down-one’s nose look that does for them even before they’ve opened their mouths.

Helen Wood
Helen Wood
2 years ago
Reply to  plynamno1

What about the book by Gottfried?
Ive been told by a philosophy graduate that Gottfried is far right…and thats why Gove is suspect.
Ive seen a different review however which praises Gottfrieds intellectual exploration of Fascism..his books title suggests objectivity ie
Fascism the career of a concept.
So is he a rigourous academic or a purveyor of dangerous far right ideology?

James Buchan
James Buchan
2 years ago

To me, and I suspect most North Easterners of a certain age the most interesting book was “Scotland the What? A Second Helping”. Good to see that you can take someone out of Aberdeenshire but you can’t take Aberdeenshire out of them….

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago

I have books I haven’t read – a pile by the bed. The there are books I have read these are stacked on shelves till there is no room, some of them then get sent to the charity shop to make room for more recently read books. Finally there are my poetry books, which, being honest, I very rarely open, but always think I might when I retire. Oh and there are the books that hold up wobbling tables and keep doors open.

tilepane
tilepane
2 years ago

Perhaps we ought to choose a new word ‘to Govel’ or some such, meaning: to set out one’s book collection so as to display the breadth, depth and variety of one’s learning.

James Brennan
James Brennan
2 years ago

Gove? Culture? Do they have anything in common?

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
2 years ago

I wonder why he didn’t just do the interview in front of a blank wall?

chris9
chris9
2 years ago

But Gove’s books are far from recondite titles. They are standard dull fare of a middling imagination and a babyish interest in the war

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  chris9

True. But that still makes him more learned than the average politician.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

But, and I’m sure you will agree, is not very difficult?
However, what is astonishing, is how many of our frankly bovine population, are so in awe of them. Truly there is no hope. Consummatum est!

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago
Reply to  chris9

Well, Chris, that’s your view. I was happy to see that Gove had his fellow Scotsman Norman Lamont’s superb memoir “In Office” on his bookshelf. (I just watched Lord Lamont and his colleagues questioning Gove in a virtual sitting of the House of Lords European Union Select Committee. I have never seen Gove in action before and was very impressed. There isn’t any minister in the Canadian government, all spouting their Big Brother Justin version of Newspeak, who can compare with him.) “In Office” is packed full of insights into the conduct of economic policy from the man who created the inflation targeting regime at the Bank of England. It is obvious from reading it that though he never talks about price stability that Lord Lamont’s ultimate goal was a much lower rate of inflation than today’s 2% target. If Lamont doesn’t get everything right (it’s hard to see why he shared PM Major’s enthusiasm for the hard ecu), no-one is perfect. It is a huge shame that Michael Wilson, arguably Canada’s greatest finance minister, never left behind a similar memoir. Dull fare, my eye! Read it yourself, if you haven’t already done so. You’ll learn something.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  chris9

The British “babyish interest in the war” is a fascinating subject, perhaps because we did so badly? If fact we didn’t win, rather we were on the winning side; A very different thing indeed.
However, fuelled by hubris, particularly as we approach yet another anniversary, we are blind to the catastrophic consequences of the two world wars for British power and prestige.
In particular the abject collapse of the British Empire was an unmitigated tragedy for the globe in so many ways, too numerous to mention here, as I’m sure you will agree?