Baird is convinced people tidy or rearrange their backgrounds before turning on their webcams and says the perfect backdrop is “studied nonchalance”.

That sums up former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s setup. His collection features history books, from ancient Greek (Courtesans and Fishcakes) to India (The Anarchy) with “a few of my books” sprinkled in between. “I haven’t curated my bookshelves,” he insists. “I’ve kind of got snowdrifts of books lying around this house and not enough shelves to put them in.”

Malcolm Turnbull in his home study.

Malcolm Turnbull in his home study.Credit:Sydney Writers’ Festival

Turnbull says the floral backdrop between his bookshelves provides cover for the mess behind. In a moment of spontaneity, he switches on FaceTime to provide a sneak peek behind the curtain: more books.

The shift to video conferencing forced Turnbull to upgrade his home office. “I didn’t even have a webcam here,” he admits. The room now also features speakers, a microphone, a tripod and lights. “I’m getting there,” he says.

Over in Perth, former foreign minister Julie Bishop has developed two distinct dress codes and backgrounds for working from home: one for voice calls, the other for video conferences.

Julie Bishop's working from home arrangements, depending on the call.

Julie Bishop’s working from home arrangements, depending on the call.

Books on her shelf span global politics (World Order by Henry Kissinger), biographies (President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman) and fiction (The Spy in Question by Tim Sebastian).

“My bookshelves contain an eclectic collection of books gathered over many years and I don’t arrange them in any particular order or genre,” Bishop says. “But I’m careful with online meetings – I don’t want my bookshelf backdrop to be the elephant in the Zoom.”

Author and journalist Annabel Crabb says she owns nine “hopelessly disordered” bookshelves.

Judging other people’s bookshelves is “one of the things keeping me alive,” she says. “For a nosy person, it’s the best value per pixel you’re ever going to see in the age of corona.”

Annabel Crabb in front of one of her nine "hopelessly disordered" bookcases.

Annabel Crabb in front of one of her nine “hopelessly disordered” bookcases. Credit:Sydney Writers’ Festival

Crabb says using a bookshelf as a backdrop is “an intellectual come-hither not offered by a ficus and a coffee table.

“It’s pretentious and high risk at the same time, because the collection the featured person thinks is marvellously highbrow might in fact mark them as a dickhead – depending on the audience.”

Meanwhile, author and cricket journalist Gideon Haigh says he’s “a pretty analogue kind of guy” and requires his 10-year-old daughter’s help to navigate Zoom calls. But what he lacks in tech literacy he makes up for in actual literature, with an entire room of floor-to-ceiling walls of books.

Each wall has its own category, and the cricket wall features a distinctive yellow strip of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanacks, better known as the ‘Bible of cricket’. Haigh says in 2012 a removalist told him his book collection weighed five tonnes.

Gideon Haigh's cricket wall.

Gideon Haigh’s cricket wall.

The spotlight this crisis has shone on bookshelves thrills Haigh, who declares he’s “always been interested” in them.

“I remember years ago when I was hunting for a house that I would tend to gravitate towards people’s shelves, and in doing so fail to take in otherwise important details, such as whether they had a toilet. Then there were houses without bookshelves. So sad.

“It has been interesting looking at people’s bookshelves on TV – the discovery of a shared book is a builder of kinship, I think.”

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s deputy governor Guy Debelle also sports an impressive-looking library. Among the shelves are The Blue Boys, an exhaustive history of the Carlton Football Club, and The Next Thing, a guide to contemporary Australian rock music. Economic books are noticeably absent, but Debelle says they’re all at work.

RBA's deputy governor Guy Debelle (centre) in his home library during a remote board meeting.

RBA’s deputy governor Guy Debelle (centre) in his home library during a remote board meeting.Credit:RBA

Until live sport resumes, bookshelf gazing might have to do. Baird says she finds herself straining her eyes to see which books people have chosen.

“I quite like being inside people’s houses – you get a little glimpse into their other lives or selves.”

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