After a year of Zoom meetings in people’s living rooms and spare rooms, we’ve become accustomed to seeing shelves packed full of books. In fact, the background bookshelf is so popular that companies even sell faux bookcases—essentially shelves full of things that look like books but are actually hollow facades. So, why are bookshelves suddenly hot property? Why do we keep shelves full of books? 

Books are functional 

On the most basic, obvious level, books are functional items that serve a purpose. To read, obviously. But the purpose of reading a book may be for entertainment, education, information, or to elicit emotion. As such, it’s reasonable to assume that for most people, the majority of the books we keep are ones we have either read or plan to read at some point. I might have 180 books on my bookshelf but I plan to read them all someday, I promise. 

Books convey status 

Of course, not everybody plans to read the books on their bookshelf. Instead, as the “pandemic bookshelf” demonstrated, a full bookcase has become a mark of credibility, education, and expertise—one exercised by politicians, newsreaders, and business owners. In fact, the Twitter account “Bookshelf Credibility” quickly gained 118k followers. A full bookshelf conveys: “You’re well-read, so you must know what you’re talking about, right?” 

Books express personality

On Zoom, we can’t necessarily read book spines, but ordinarily, someone’s book collection says a lot about their personality and values. Your book choices display your persona (bookworm, romantic, entrepreneur, etc) in much the same way that people collect Pop! figures, modern art paintings, or souvenirs. Books are collectable items, especially if they’re beautiful designs, limited editions, or vintage items. It’s the reason why I have five different copies of Wuthering Heights.

Books are sentimental

Books can also be sentimental and nostalgia-inducing—especially if they’re presents from loved ones, signed first editions, books from your childhood, or antiques lovingly read and handed down through the generations. In these cases, it may be less about the book itself and more about the notion behind the book. The love put into buying the gift, the personal touch of the author signing it, the connection to the past and those who read the book before you, the message written to you on the first page.  

Books have meaning

Photo by Taryn Elliott on

On the deepest level, books can have a personal significance to you—one that isn’t apparently obvious from its edition or origins. This might be the memory of where you bought it (like my copy of Possession found in a second-hand bookshop in New Orleans), the place where you read it, or even the life stage you were in at the time. It might be a mental cue that you need to focus on purpose within your business, or a memento mori to remind you to not take life for granted.

Books are…?

To cut a long story short, books are about so much more than reading them. They’re not just functional items but beautiful, sentimental, and meaningful things. They can be purely decorative, a way to display your personality, or a way to convey your expertise. Who knows whether the background bookshelf will continue to be popular when our Zoom lives are behind us, but I do know that my bookshelf will always have personal meaning to me, and perhaps yours to you.

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