fb-pixel Skip to main content

Bookshelves of the rich and famous

Was that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ on Amy Klobuchar’s shelf? Did I recognize the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Anthony Trollope behind actor Paul Giamatti?

"The Mirror & The Light" is the final book in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy.Peter Summers/Getty

When Stephen Colbert interviewed Mayor Pete Buttigieg last week on “The Late Show,” I squealed with delight. Not because the former presidential candidate had anything much to say but because behind him, half out of sight, I recognized the distinctive vine-crossed dark blue cover of Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light,” her monumental new novel about the fall of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. My night was made.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself more interested in the backdrop than the foreground. If there are any benefits to this odd and horrible time of the coronavirus, it is in treats like the unexpected appearance of Mantel’s book. As talk show guests and news talking heads broadcast from their homes, more often than not we get to see those homes — and, increasingly, their bookshelves. Although some celebrities have been interviewed in their kitchens or bedrooms, the living room or library has become the remote default. There’s less chance of an embarrassing cameo by a nude family member if you’re backed up against the hardcovers. Plus, bookshelves convey a sense of literacy, even when the subject is commenting on the latest streaming binge or guilty pleasure.

Like the “Easter eggs” hidden in a movie or video game, these shelves also give us book lovers a little extra context. They are private space made public, inviting us to read into what the stars read. Many of these shelves are packed with political biographies (I’m pretty sure I spotted Winston Churchill on Buttigieg’s and LBJ on Colbert’s) or cultural touchstones (Trevor Noah’s shelves showcase Ta-Nehisi Coates and President Obama while his correspondent Roy Wood Jr. has both Obama and “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire” on his). The intersection of interests here is obvious. Politics as well as entertainment that address issues of race are key to what these entertainers do professionally, whether at home or in a studio.


But what about the more obscure choices? Was that “Pride and Prejudice” on Amy Klobuchar’s shelf? Did she pull it down for a fictional escape, as her husband battled the coronavirus? Did I recognize the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Anthony Trollope behind actor Paul Giamatti? “The Way We Live Now” or “Is He Popenjoy?”? Trollope’s musings on wealth and power would certainly make sense as the actor finishes up a season of “Billions.”


Such speculation may be moot. This moment of unintentional candor is already, apparently, passing. Increasingly, celebrities seem to be staging their shelves — remaking their private space for the public eye again. On her “Full Frontal” this past week, Samantha Bee pointed out some notable examples of public figures prominently displaying their own books behind them as they were interviewed — the visual equivalent of mentioning the title, the full title, as often as possible. (A trick I was taught during media training for my own first book, and which I performed to the extent that the host of one public radio show told me, during a break, to tone it down.) As a punchline, Bee displayed her own book, which she had hanging from a tree beside her in her backyard.

For the moment, we still have some opportunities for candid browsing. That copy of the Mantel, for example, wasn’t shelved behind Buttigieg or even prominently displayed. The book was simply lying on an end table, half out of sight. If you didn’t know the cover already, you probably would not have recognized it, which led me to wonder if Buttigieg or his husband might have been reading it before the camera — or the Zoom call — turned on. And that makes me want the next interviewer to ask Buttigieg what he made of that great political drama. What he’s really like, once the camera is turned off.


Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at http://www.cleasimon.com