Is the "Shelfie" Just Intellectual Wankery?

The bookshelfie and shelfie alike are ways not just to geek out with fellow book fiends, but also to send a signal about your cultural, social, and class position.
Publish date:
December 19, 2013
books, reading, bookshelfie, selfies, shelfie, elitism

I have largely stayed out of the great selfie war of 2013, because I think Lesley put it very well and my personal opinion on people taking pictures of themselves and posting them on the internet is that they can be personal tools of empowerment. It’s telling that as people condemn selfies as vain, selfish, antifeminist, etc etc, they’re a tool produced by and for women, primarily, women taking agency when it comes to how they look and how they present themselves.

It includes fat women posting outfits of the day in defiance of cultural norms just as much as it does glossy celebs on Instagram. Anyone can produce a selfie and share it, anyone can follow a user and like her pictures. Selfies provide a way to connect to people, too, literally putting a face to a name. The selfie (as with portraiture in general) is an art form, and it’s become proletariat in nature. Funny how something is vain and selfish when women do it, and hip and cool when dudes do.

Why do we treasure self-portraits painted by dead white dudes and get our knickers in a twist over photographs taken by modern women?

Anyway, point is, selfies=good. I like selfies.

But then people had to go dragging books into the mix. It actually started this summer, with the bookshelfie, but “The Guardian” decided to get in on the hip new trend with its “shelfie” piece on Monday.

I suspect there may be incidences of the bookshelfie from before this summer, but that’s when I saw the tag and the trend cropping up more and more. Basic premise: take a picture of yourself in front of your bookshelf. Upload to media service of your choice. Boom, you’re done. Yes, there is a Tumblr.

Publishers even got in on the fun, posting bookshelfies from their social media offices and encouraging readers to take their own to participate in contests and promos. This is like a combination of my two favorite things, people being awesome and books! Delicious!

Of course, the bookshelfie also turns the traditional selfie about a bit. It’s no longer just about claiming ownership of your face and image and sharing yourself with the world. Now, it’s about showing off your bookshelves; which means the photographer has to think very carefully about precisely where that camera is pointed, considering that the books depicted may reflect something about the photographer’s tastes or secret pleasures.

Thus, the bookshelfie became something of an intellectual bragging match, too. There’s “look at all the books I have” and “admire my intellectualism” bound up in the idea of posting a picture of yourself in front of your bookshelf. This is a selfie for the erudite. Dare I say it: it’s a selfie for people who think they transcend the selfie, who are above petty vanity.

Is it like a giant book club, or is it another form of social coding and class signaling? When everyone rioted because Instagram released an Android edition and was no longer elite, did they start having to get more creative about expressing their superiority?

I mean, look, I am a book lover, and I read the shit out of books, and I do in fact post photographs of what I am reading on Instagram, so I can’t cast stones too much. But there’s something about the trend that made me uneasy, the structure of it, the suggestion that a selfie is vain and preposterous, but a bookshelfie, now, that’s okay.

“The Guardian” has a different take on the bookshelfie, though. It’s shelfie photos are only of books, no people; what it’s soliciting is documentation of bookshelves. Because that, of course, is much more sophisticated and hip than vain women documenting their lives. Perhaps the next logical extension will be harshly filtered photographs of utterly empty shelves, faint ghosts of people fluttering at the edge of the frame.

The resulting tide of submissions is part fascinating glimpse into the lives of others, and part game of intellectual circlejerk, as people attempt to one-up each other with ever more impressive displays of books. Evidently no one told them that it’s not the size that matters, but how you use it, as users appear to be vying to display the largest possible book collection; whether or not those books are read, used as resources, or passed around for others to enjoy. Suddenly, this has turned into a serious round of showing that mine is better than yours.

As those of us who have taken selfies know, great care and consideration goes into the photo, no matter how casual it may look, and we may take several before we settle on one to share. Bookshelfie participants are equally cautious, for reasons discussed above, and in the shelfie gallery, similar caution is taken: viewers are either determined to show off, or willing to be self-deprecating about their “Scandi crime” collections, but either way, they're curating what they present and they're aware of the social implications.

Just owning books in and of itself is a telling social marker, and the number of books you own is another one. The bookshelfie and shelfie alike are ways not just to geek out with fellow book fiends, but also to send a signal about your cultural, social, and class position. Owning large quantities of books, being familiar with them, frequently referring to them, working in an industry where books are valued, these are all markers of upper middle class status, reflecting education, purchasing power, and social privilege.

Do I love seeing people share what they’re reading? Of course I do, and I love sharing what I read. But I also do so in awareness that there’s something a little bit calculated about it. Because, let's face it, showing off your books is a form of elitism, and framing it in a way that suggests it's superior to the selfie is misogynist and gross.