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The Shelfie: From the Early Modern Ages to COVID-19: Background information when reading Portable Magic

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Portable Magic

A History of Books and Their Readers

by Emma Smith

Portable Magic by Emma Smith X
Portable Magic by Emma Smith
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  • Published:
    Nov 2022, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tasneem Pocketwala
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About this Book

The Shelfie: From the Early Modern Ages to COVID-19

This article relates to Portable Magic

Print Review

1700s painted color portrait of Madame de Pompadour (by François Boucher), pictured lounging in voluminous dress with book in lap Perhaps it's a quirk of readers, but it seems almost natural to be drawn to other people's books — whether in images on social media or in someone's home. Books offer a snapshot of who a person is, presenting a quick glimpse of what influences them, what they might think about and what holds lasting meaning for them.

So it isn't surprising when people are mindful of the appearance of their very visible bookshelves. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many businesses shifted work online over Zoom calls, some used their bookcases as their backgrounds. It seemed a neutral, formal-looking choice, but it was also in some instances a way to implicitly suggest erudition.

Colloquially termed "shelfies," personal images of (often carefully selected) books and reading have flourished in modern times. Some people are so concerned by how their books represent them that they hire businesses to help them curate their bookshelves. But while the shelfie may have thrived on social media and been wryly brought center-stage by the pandemic, it's hardly a new concept. In a chapter titled "Shelfies: Anne, Marilyn and Madame de Pompadour" in Portable Magic, Emma Smith draws a parallel between three very different historical women, showing how they used images of themselves with books in order to inform and shape the way they were seen in the public arena — often considered the domain of men.

The 17th-century countess Lady Anne Clifford was the commissioner and primary subject of The Great Picture by Jan van Belcamp, a giant, life-sized triptych depicting her family. The painting serves as a way to memorialize her battle for hereditary rights, which is ultimately what she is most known for. But more intriguing are the books in the background, whose titles, when viewed at scale, are readable and are therefore meant to be noticed. They include literature, such as works by Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as books on philosophy, religion and history.

Madame de Pompadour, the infamous mistress of King Louis XV, carried a certain racy demeanor. Her "femme savante" portraits, created by François Boucher and other 18th-century artists, gave this idea of her an intellectual twist. In these paintings, she is sometimes portrayed with an open book splayed on her lap or against a background of books, but also often with a mood of indulgent carefreeness. She was a reader — but the compositions of her portraits don't forego material luxuries and pleasures, or her notoriety. In them, she embraces her bookishness and also her infamy.

Another celebrity who introduced bookish visuals into her popular image was Marilyn Monroe, whose "dumb blonde" reputation is complicated by a picture taken by the photojournalist Eve Arnold in 1955. In this photo, Monroe is depicted wearing a swimsuit and deeply engrossed in reading the famously challenging Ulysses by James Joyce. At the time, Joyce's novel still carried the distinct impression of scandal that followed it during its early publication days. It was slammed as obscene and faced banning threats; considering this, Monroe's choice can be seen as both provocative and sophisticated.

As with Madame de Pompadour and Anne Clifford, Monroe's manipulation of her image shows, as Smith puts it, "an astute understanding of books and their social significations."

Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, 1721 - 1764) by François Boucher, via Google Arts & Culture

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This article relates to Portable Magic. It first ran in the November 2, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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