Disclaimer: This article was written before Charles Amos was removed from presidency by the KCLCA. You can read our coverage of that story here.
Comment Editor Asher Gibson discusses how bookshelves can be used to read into the implicit values of political figures.
Roar’s recent interview with Charles Amos, the new President of the KCL Conservative Association, produced an interchange. In it, two students summarise a long-held debate around the bookshelves of political figures and how they can be used to read into these figures characters.
One argues that the presence of Enoch Powell and Adolf Hitler’s works on Amos’ bookshelf is politically relevant – perhaps implying that their views reflect his own. It is a view espoused by Alan Bennett, who said: “A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot.”
The other argues, however, that their presence is politically neutral. Hitler and Powell are simply ‘important figures of the last century’, and their presence on Amos’ shelf says little about his political idiolect.
This is perhaps why Twitter is filled with condemnations of Michael Gove’s collection of literature. In particular, his display of work by David Irving – a notable Holocaust denier – and ‘The Bell Curve’ by Charles Murray – recognised for its troubling claims about links between race and IQ – is regarded by critics as a reflection of his own political vision, and by supporters as nothing but evidence of his wider reading.
Book collections will undoubtedly say something about a collector’s interests, priorities, and values. However, the qualities of the books themselves can say much more about their owners, and these are often not visible in photos or video call backgrounds.
The first and most obvious question to ask is: how well-used is the collection? A wall of books, impossible to read entirely and curated for display, shows a preoccupation with being seen as ‘well-read’. For political figures like Gove and Amos, this is understandable. For them, a full bookshelf can function like a suit and tie; its aesthetic value is uniform for their professions.
There is also the background of the books themselves to consider. Were they bought new? Are their author(s) still alive? Buying a living author’s book, brand new, provides them with financial, as well as symbolic, support. It suggests investment in the content of the book and in the author’s ongoing success and personal well-being.
If the author is no longer alive, is their work released to the public? Under the Berne Convention, the copyright of a book lasts for the extent of an author’s life and for the 50 years following their death. After this, their work is often released for free online. Owning books as hard copies after copyright ends could, therefore, hint at a symbolic attachment to their book’s author and content.
For King’s students, the books we own are even more reflective of our characters. Pre-COVID, we all had free access to the King’s and Senate House libraries. We still have access to the King’s Online Library, Oxford University Press online, JSTOR and other digital outlets. If a particular book piques our casual interest, we are more likely to access it without buying a hard copy than the general public. Our unfettered access to literature means that what we own personally is more often a value-driven choice.
Ultimately, the contents of a person’s bookshelf can only hint at their political values. It will not tell you everything about them, but it will inevitably tell you something. In Amos’ case, Enoch Powell’s work is available on the King’s Online Library and a full English translation of Mein Kampf can be found with a Google search.
If he is aware of this (and I cannot be sure if he is), then he has chosen to have those books on his shelf. I have also read Enoch Powell and Adolf Hitler. Neither have a place on mine.