Are books the new vanity backdrop?

You’ve heard of selfies, those cell-phone self-portraits full of awkward arm angles and blurry, presumably beautiful backdrops. Now the trend is bookshelfies: posing in front of your book collection to demonstrate your analog intellectualism. Printed books, after all, are now increasingly viewed as rare art objects. And in the age of sharing and curating, people posting such pics to the new Bookshelfies Tumblr often even list their favorite reads.

But there’s nothing new about posing with objects intended to burnish one’s image. We’ve all seen those photographs in which a family’s most prized possessions  have been dragged out to the lawn for a portrait.

Francisco de Mura's 1740 self-portrait was designed to impress.

Francisco de Mura was dressed to impress in this 1740 self-portrait.

In Francisco de Mura’s self-portrait from 1740 (on view in Gallery 307), the artist has cloaked himself in sumptuous duds and surrounded himself with billowing drapes, a marble-topped gold table, and drawings to suggest his intellectual rigor and technical mastery.

And with painting, none of it even needed to be real.

Which may be part of bookshelfies’ appeal: in the digital era, when you can “paint” nearly any kind of portrait of yourself online, there’s something reassuring about someone who surrounds himself with things as real and tactile as books. Not that you’ve necessarily read them.