“Good library set up. Camera angle works. Sterile. Needs a touch of whimsy to soften. 7/10”
“Art. Orchid. Angle. Books. Natural lighting. 10/10”
“Pumpkin. Emmy. Books. Raise camera/reframe. 7/10”
“Strong plant game. Flag. Bookcase. Is that a bull behind you? 7/10”
The Twitter account Room Rater releases upwards of 20 Zoom background reviews every day, commenting on the home spaces from which newscasters and specialists broadcast on live television. The tweets are undeniably funny, drawing humor from the bizarre shared reality of coronavirus pandemic daily life, but they are also pointing to something else in our culture, something that is perhaps deeper and more consequential than a 280-character review.
Library, books, bookcase — the pattern is inescapable. Spend a minute scrolling through Room Rater and you’ll see that most of the featured backgrounds contain some kind of printed, bound and displayed literature. It’s not that the account selectively comments on Zoom backgrounds with bookshelves, as one might be led to assume. It just seems like all smart people broadcasting from their home bunkers have decided that books are their ideal setting.
In a time of virtual connectivity, the consensus among intellectuals, experts, politicians and entertainers is such: to look smart is to appear in front of rows, stacks, sometimes whole libraries of books. This pattern might appear benign, and perhaps it is less problematic than broadcasting in front of more garish displays of wealth and power. But I still wonder how we ought to judge the reign of Zoom bookshelf backgrounds.
We may wax poetic for the delicious materiality of feather soft pages, crumbly covers and inky text, but books are still objects; they are goods for purchase in a capitalist economy. It is easy to divest their identity as a product from their function as a tool of learning and knowledge. Belonging to a class altogether different from goods like purses and shoes, books seem like a wholesome investment, promising the return of self-improvement.
I am guilty of entering a bookstore and purchasing titles — mindless of their cost— that I think I should read. To access esteem and respect, there is a required reading list that we must reference or somehow possess in the recesses of our brains. It’s those moments when we recoil in horror — for how could a 5C student have never read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? — when the nasty side of this tendency reveals its nature. Just as we revere the uncommon few who effortlessly recall Plato, Proust and Hemingway, we revile the unread.
But Zoom bookshelves are particularly bizarre because they entail no actual reading. The likelihood that the national political reporter who Zooms into the evening news has actually read every single book in the sea of titles floating behind their head is slim. These are props; they blend in with the flower vase and the perfectly hung modern art. In constructing and approbating model Zoom dioramas, books no longer function only as something to be read. They are instead symbols of class aesthetic that imply knowledge and respect.
This aestheticization of bookishness represents a culture in which knowledge is synonymous with capital. Although class is still signaled by luxury goods, one can express membership in powerful social classes with less traditionally materialistic possessions and practices. But this phenomenon started before the coronavirus pandemic.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, documented the rise of a new elite class in “The Sum of Small Things,” published in 2017. In her book, Currid-Halkett characterizes a powerful group that spends money on subscriptions to the New Yorker, organic dinosaur kale and yoga classes.
“Cultural capital … is the collection of distinctive aesthetics, skills, and knowledge (often attained through education and pedigree). Objectified cultural capital suggests that particular objects gain cultural or symbolic value that transcends, and is often greater than, any monetary value assigned. Thus social class … is attained through the adoption of values and aesthetics and the ability to decipher symbols and signs beyond materialism,” Currid-Halkett wrote.
The coronavirus pandemic limits our opportunities to collect and display these “objectified” pieces of cultural capital. We can no longer signal membership in an elite, knowledgeable class by wearing our ethically made German sandals or sipping kombucha in our 10:30 a.m. Comparative Politics Intro. Limited in our ability to congregate, the Zoom background becomes a stage from which we project status, asking our onlookers to respect and approve both our opinions and — more importantly — our identity.
As a books columnist, this is perhaps an unexpectedly negative take on the very topic that I’m expected to promote. But I am skeptical that the reign of Zoom book backgrounds signifies a reinvigoration of bibliophilia in American culture. In many ways, it affirms quite the opposite — that we live in a materialistic society that values the image of bookishness over actual intellectual engagement. Even the vague, shadowy idea of intellectual engagement is itself intertwined with class. The time I spend thinking, reading and writing is conditional on my financial comfort, inseparable from the cultural capital of college attendance.
Relearning how to connect in our new pandemic reality is an issue with no tidy conclusion. We are all in the same rickety boat, and none of us have answers. Perhaps I am prodding too deeply into a comedic Twitter account, and I should stop criticizing a situation where we’re really all trying our best. Regardless, it still feels worthwhile to reevaluate our relationships with things in the Zoomiverse.
Room Rater would call this argument untidy (Focus camera, reframe. 2/10), but unlike Zoom backgrounds, the reality of class during a pandemic is ambient and tangible, occupying our collective lives in real ways. There are no maxims in this argument, and I don’t mean to define anything as entirely and objectively good or bad. I rather mean to question whether the things we perceive as neutral are as innocent as we’d like to think.
Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. An aspiring thinker in the political sciences, she is passionate about breakfast cereal, long runs and defending the honor of listening to the radio.