Michael Gove’s bookshelf – and yours (and mine too)


Plenty of people like to be filmed against the backdrop of their bookshelves to convey the message or at least create the impression that they are smart. This has become even more common during the current extraordinary conditions of self-isolation, where virtually all the media interviews are conducted from home rather than in studio. Ditto for all the Zoom and other teleconferences. This, in turn, has given some people the opportunity to nose around and check out just what exactly others have on their shelves – presumably having read it and not just for decoration. It should be a fun exercise, but these days of perpetual outrage no fun goes unpunished.

By contrast, the picture of a bookshelf belonging to a Tory minister Michael Gove and his wife Sarah Vine was unsolicited, which probably adds to the regret right about now. Here are a few typical reactions:


Perhaps we should  burn those books.

For the record, I have always found Gove weaselly and unappealing – but it’s not about him. For the record too, I detest David Irving’s Nazi sympathies and Holocaust denial (by the way, has everyone in the academia and the intelligencia gotten rid off their Heidegger,  Eliade and Pound books yet?), though despite having an extensive war collection I don’t own any of his tomes – but it’s not about him either.

It’s about two things – stupidity and hypocrisy.

Stupidity, because to the far and not so far left, owning somebody’s book implies that you endorse all their ideas. You have a book by a Nazi sympathiser? Why, you must approve of his ideas. Most likely you are a Nazi too.

The left loves censorship (as much as the real Nazis did). For them certain ideas should not exist in the first place and so they need to be suppressed, rather than, as others do, accept that a variety of views will always be present out there in the world and we should debate them, aiming to defeat what we consider the bad ones with facts, logic and rationality rather than fire and prison.

A normal, rational person might want to read a certain book, with which they will disagree, because they want to know what others are thinking and because you need to know that before you can in fact debate and disprove their ideas. Experts like the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who writes about anti-Semitism  and Holocaust denial probably owns a few Irving books herself, and presumably they might be stored on her shelves, rather than say in a locked chest under the stairs. But it shouldn’t be the privilege of experts to have the exclusive access to the forbidden knowledge.

The difference between the left and the right is that the left wants you to accept their word that David Irving is a bad person with bad ideas while the right wants you to arrive at that conclusion yourself and furthermore be able to argue with and disprove Irving and his supporters to demonstrate not just that they are wrong but why and how.

Books, like other human artifacts, are historical records and documents of our past. You might not like the course that the history took, but it’s important to know it and remember it.

And hypocrisy, because of the double standards.

Sure, Nazis, Nazi sympathisers, Holocaust deniers and assorted other apologists are mad, bad and dangerous to know. But what about communists? How many of those having a go at Gove and his wife for owning an Irving book have on their own shelves works by Marx, if not Lenin, Mao, Che and numerous related others? Those who have been inspired by and followed Marx’s idea (whether you think correctly or not) have been responsible for some 100 million premature deaths in the 20th century and other untold misery and devastation. Mao, the author of the little Red Book, accounts for up to 60 million of those (I happen to have a copy; does that make me a Maoist and a genocide fan?). But socialism is cool and you can’t blame Marx because to do so would be to delegitimise the whole socialist project. And of course the socialist ideals are all beautiful – equality! solidarity! community! dignity! – and, in any case, everyone has had good intentions. So all good, guys.

Read and own whatever the damn you like – and don’t let the fascists of any kind dictate your bookshelf. Except for “50 Shades of Grey”. We’ll all judge you for that.

The main picture: some of my shelves – feel free to judge me.