The Shelfie


Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.


Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

When COVID arrived, or more exactly when Zoom arrived shortly afterwards and we all invited the world on a video tour of selected parts of our homes, we all faced interesting design/disclosure questions. What did we want the world to see, and not to see?

And once we’d sorted out those more extreme questions (kids in picture okay? Dogs okay? Three-day beard okay? Pajamas okay?), we got a little more sophisticated and realized we could actually design the revealed home environment as a kind of self-portrait. Some of us, especially those with tech skills, added CGI backgrounds that formed disturbingly fluttery cutouts around our heads, and some of us, notably those in academia, created the Shelfie.

It’s a term I first heard only in late November 2022, but like all good neologisms, it brings a bunch of things, both material and immaterial, into focus.

Like a selfie, it implies we are very conscious of how we’re presenting ourselves — and by including our bookshelves, it implies we want the world to see us as, in some sense, People Of The Book. But in what sense, exactly, and what does this tell us about how we think of writing?

For some people, the Shelfie is clearly a little intimidating. They interpret the person on screen as using their bookshelves in a kind of symbolic sneer, as if to say, “I’ve read all these books behind me, and therefore by extension all the books ever written.” It’s all too easy to be reminded of all the books we haven’t read, or have started but never finished, or have bought but never opened. That in itself is interesting: I’ve never heard anyone regret the conversations they’ve never had, or started but left to catch a train. Writing is different: Books in particular imply not only a sense of serious purpose but also a dedicated agenda for self-improvement. To say, “Oh, yeah, I bought Critique of Pure Reason but just couldn’t get into it,” is a double admission of shallowness.

By the way: I did indeed open Critique of Pure Reason in Blackwell’s famous bookshop in Oxford, and read the first paragraph, but just couldn’t get into it. After a period of rest and recovery I read the first sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — “The world is all that is the case”—and 50 years later I am still not sure I know what it means. But would I include both books in my Shelfie? Hell, it’s possible I’d be tempted.

That in turn raises the possibility that people’s Shelfies are in fact as fake as the CGI landscapes. I doubt it, though. I know there are people who actually buy books by the yard and fill their shelves to make themselves look smart and deep (a tactic, I’m told, also used by realtors to sell high-end mansions), but I’m assuming they are a minority. Plus, books are heavy. Not sure the effort of hauling several wheelbarrow-loads of tomes into your house to create a faux study would be worth it.

So let’s think about the next layer of questions. Is the Shelfie a way of saying, “I own all these books,” or, “I’ve read all these books,” or, “I understand all these books?” Because each suggests a different relationship to the written word, and perhaps an escalating level of presumption. According to actuarial tables, every single person who ever graduated from any college anywhere took all their books with them, even if they were profoundly relieved they would now never have to read the rest of Critique of Pure Reason or write papers about the Tractatus.

Those same tables reveal two reasons for this unnecessary and quixotic act of transportation: One, those books are the only presentable furniture we owned in college. And two, we all feared that, much though we hated college, once out in the real world we would gradually shrivel to the size of intellectual peanuts unless our books surrounded us, like maximum R-value insulation against the philistine winter of post-graduation life. In such cases, then, the Shelfie shows that we are still fighting that good fight. It’s the equivalent of a bumper-sticker that reads, “Still Alive And Thinking (Sometimes).”

And now, dear reader, this column gets serious. If you have better things to do, such as boxing up all your Stephen King novels and ordering the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for that bottom row of bookshelves, this would be the time to go off and do them.

Here’s the thing: Whatever one’s motives, the Shelfie says something really interesting about the way we all relate to writing.

First of all, I’ve never seen a Shelfie populated with magazines or newspapers. No matter what we actually know about the publishing industry, we clearly believe that a book is in some sense a receptacle of enduring assets, a verbal treasure-chest, or, as the Anglo-Saxons had it, a word-hoard. It’s a container of value.

It’s easy to see that we manifest this degree of reverence by looking at our furniture and interior design. Glass and china cabinets may have fallen out of fashion, but we still have a specific item of furniture whose only function is to display our books, and we usually place it in our homes in such a way that half an entire wall, sometimes more, is decorated with nothing but the spines of books, just sitting there, doing nothing except being books. There’s even a degree of feng shui to it: I know plenty of people who feel calmer and more at home in a comfortable chair surrounded by their bookshelves.

Which may seem odd in a culture that doesn’t overtly celebrate or revere knowledge. In Bali, by contrast, on the day dedicated to the goddess Saraswati, which takes place once a (210-day) year, the entire day is suffused with the reverence for books, which traditionally are bound collections of lontar palm leaves, kept in a place of honor in the household. During that day, among both the rich and poor, all the lontar manuscripts in a house are gathered, dusted, and if necessary repaired, and act as the representation of the goddess, to whom 18 offerings are made, one for each of the letters of the Balinese alphabet. Each offering contains the symbol of the supreme god, made of fried rice dough.

We don’t still have that degree of reverence for books, or that close an association between writing and the divine, but we clearly have the vestiges of both. Beyond all the psychologizing of motive, the Shelfie, I suggest, manifests the belief that writing at its best is not only a way of accumulating knowledge; it’s a reassuring reminder that in continually accumulating knowledge and understanding we, as individuals and as a species, are trying our best to be worthwhile citizens of the planet. That we are wrapping this vast and continually growing wisdom, intangible as dust, around ourselves like an invisible shawl. A screenshot of our heads and shoulders in front of several rows of books is infinitely more than that same upper body against a blank wall; it suggests, especially during a pandemic, that we are not heading into a grim and uncertain future alone, nor without some sense of collective purpose.

Of course, you are going to choose to wrap yourself with a shawl of one color, I with another, but both your Shelfie and mine show we’re both members of the Ancient and Worshipful Company of the Written Word, with all the rights and responsibilities that membership entails.

Tim Brookes’s zoom talks can be found at You may notice that his Shelfie actually features not books, but carvings of endangered forms of writing.



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