On a recent morning, I found myself in my usual position—on my couch, planted in front of the TV, watching the news, something I have done every single day for hours at a time since the coronavirus pandemic came to New York. I was watching MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt talk about the recently passed stimulus bill.
But I wasn’t really watching Hunt herself or hearing her describe the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the bill’s passage. Instead, I found myself trying to read the titles of the books that occupied the shelves in the makeshift studio she had created in her Washington, DC–area home, a place from which she had been reporting remotely since the pandemic began. There were two shelves behind her, both lined with books. And I found myself curious about what she might have been reading.
I moved off the couch and inched closer to the set, but I couldn’t make out any of the titles. Then, I noticed something that had at first escaped my attention: All her books had been apparently arranged by color. The top shelf was all red, the bottom shelf all blue.
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Was that a decorating decision? Some curious manifestation of OCD? Or was she just testing viewers like me, wondering if anyone would notice? (Apparently, I wasn’t the only viewer mesmerized this design oddity. After a New York Times article mentioned her color-coordinated shelves, Hunt tweeted out a picture from another bookshelf in her home, arranged by yet another color: “I do in fact have plenty of sea-foam green books that I’ve read recently—from low- to highbrow!”)
I’ve spent a lot of time the past month contemplating the home-design choices of network anchors, cable-show hosts, and the ubiquitous talking heads who join them on a fairly regular basis. As more interviews are held remotely and as the anchors themselves have moved into makeshift home studios, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the backdrops each of these has chosen as they pronounce judgments on the waning days of the Democratic presidential primaries or the latest bizarre statements made by President Trump at his daily coronavirus briefings.
They range from the relaxed manner of John Heilemann, in a blazer and checked shirt sitting in front of his open-plan kitchen, to the full-suit-and-tie (well, at least from the waist up) look of Jon Meacham, backed by wall-to-wall bookshelves that fill the entire frame behind him. (And no, those books are not arranged by color.)
Ah, yes, bookshelves. Rows of carefully arranged books seem to be the go-to choice of most of the reporters and commentators who provide the bulk of the cable-news programming. Thus my curiosity about their reading habits. Peter Baker, a White House correspondent for the New York Times and a frequent guest on MSNBC, sits in front of a tall, narrow bookshelf containing an array of political tomes and presidential biographies, including what looked like one of his own, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. David Gura, another MSNBC correspondent, has a more haphazardly arranged bookshelf as his backdrop, with an eclectic reading taste that ranges from the *New Yorker *’s Jane Mayer (Dark Money) to novelist Colson Whitehead (The Nickel Boys). And Josh Barro, a business columnist for New York magazine, has been doing his frequent TV appearances lately framed by a row of travel books and a vintage poster from United Airlines (wishful thinking?).
But the bookshelves that have most fascinated me have been those of Eddie Glaude, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton and a frequent contributor to MSNBC. His shelves are spectacularly messy and overstuffed, the sign of a true reader and of far-ranging tastes. And he definitely seems to have realized that viewers are paying attention: A few weeks ago, a book by James Baldwin was prominently displayed right behind his head, its full cover facing outward. Two weeks later, a biography of Herman Melville and a novel by Orhan Pamuk were given that star treatment. Still later, Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez were in the prime spots.
Not everyone has turned to bookshelves as their go-to backdrops: The former U.S. senator Claire McCaskill recently appeared on Morning Joe from a cozy kitchen that drew praise from cohost Mika Brzezinski. Former secretary of labor Robert Reich seems to like being interviewed from the bucolic porch of his Berkeley, California, home. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski has an array of stuffed toy squirrels in his den that has drawn the deep curiosity of viewers,. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, the chief medical correspondent for ABC News, delivers her reports from a spot in her home where she is bracketed by a vase of artfully arranged orchids and a framed watercolor, perhaps to offer the viewer a somewhat soothing contrast to her daily pronouncements on the pandemic’s deadly spread.
Many of the network anchors, like NBC’s Lester Holt, are reporting from home in makeshift studios that have been constructed to like their usual perch, complete with impressive backdrops. Others are have successfully transformed spaces in their homes into professional-level settings. The married couple Katy Tur (MSNBC) and Tony Dokoupil (CBS) even alternate broadcasting from a shared space they have created in their New York home, one occasionally doing hair and makeup for the other.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, though, gave viewers a tantalizing glimpse of his Manhattan home on March 20, when a member of his staff showed symptoms of the coronavirus and Cooper quickly had to broadcast from his home for an evening. He resides in a 1906 8,420-square-foot firehouse in Greenwich Village that he bought in 2010 for $4.3 million and that he and architect Cary Tamarkin spent the next few years renovating.
Dressed in a form-fitting green V-neck T-shirt, Cooper appeared from what looked like a Victorian-era library, complete with ceiling-to-floor bookshelves and an antique globe, as he reported the night’s news. (Missing from the frame, unfortunately, were the original metal spiral staircase and the brass fire pole that Anderson and his architect had kept from the fire station.)
One of the more stunning backdrops was the living room of Lawrence Summers, the economist and former president of Harvard University. As he gave an interview from the airy, sunlit room, I admired what looked like an Alexander Calder installation hovering over the hallway. Then, with a start, I noticed a familiar-looking piece of artwork on the back wall. It was Blue II, the centerpiece of a gorgeous triptych by the Spanish artist Joan Miró, a print of which also hangs in the bedroom of my Manhattan apartment.
Somehow, I don’t think Summers bought his at the Prado gift shop.
Originally Appeared on Vogue