Friday, January 7, 2011

A Rant: When Is A Book Not A Book?

Surely I can't be the only one who finds the whole idea unsettling? Yeah, it makes for a pretty picture. But...

Is a book a book if it's just for looks? What is the point of a book meant solely to pretty up a shelf? The point is obvious, you say, the point is that it tells the viewer that the home owner has 'taste' and money enough to indulge it. I don't understand this, I'll never understand it. I read this piece Selling a Book By Its Cover, from the NY Times with my mouth hanging open. Oh, I know there are homes, large expensive homes in which the library shelves were filled with books bought by the pound at some estate sale. Books never meant to be read, meant merely to fill up space - like props in a stage setting. Books never meant to be touched, merely to be looked at. But I'd hoped this kind of thing was only occasionally to be found in stately homes where no one actually lived. Why that should make the idea more palatable, I don't know.

(Now, I'm not talking about books being used in film and/or theater settings, I know there are businesses that deal in this sort of necessary thing. I'm not even talking, I guess, about the guy who makes pretty trees out of books. I think I view this as recycling.)

But while reading the Times, I felt a surge of nausea at the thought of books being used in this way in a private home. Books wasted, languishing on shelves, all in uniform color covers, merely to satisfy some control-freak idea of decorating. Books as 'texture' - yegads! Books chosen by size and weight, never for content. Books used to make some sort of artsy-fartsy statement. And what's more, there are people making a living supplying this sort of thing to people with too much money and very little taste. People without any elemental sense of the fitness or the rightness of things. People without the heart to value books in any way except as decorations, as God forbid, objet d'arts. See slide show, and try not to be dismayed.

And yes, maybe in a way it IS recycling too, but honestly, the whole idea of this sort of thing makes me cringe. In this kind of atmosphere, books become invisible. They fade into the background, like wallpaper.

What do you think of all this? Am I too sensitive? Is the world coming to an end?


  1. Maybe a company could just make a wallpaper that mimics this. Then the homeowner gets the effect they want without waste. The last laugh may be on them. They'll soon find that shelves of books that never get read or moved, have to be dusted.

  2. One thing's for sure I wouldn't want to know anyone who bought books purely for their aesthetic value - but I'm pretty sure I don't move in the same circles so there's not much chance I will run into such vacuous people.

    Most days I'm pretty sure the world IS coming to an end - the amount of stuff we don't need (like books that will never be read) that we seem to be accumulating collectively will bury us sooner rather than later I suspect. But I'm not sure what we do about it given it's illegal to shoot people just 'cos they're stupid and vacuous :)

  3. I couldn't agree with you more. Books should be read not looked at for the color of the spine.

  4. If you want textured colour on your walls you use wallpaper, surely? I guess I can understand someone wanting to stock the shelves of their study/office/library with serious looking leather-bound tomes of wisdom (even if they only intend to absorb the contents through a form of osmosis rather than actual reading), and I can certainly understand the importance of jacket design, but choosing a book because it fits your decor is just stupid. I choose books to suit my self, not my shelf.

  5. This is annoying.

    As someone who grew up in a house filled with books that meant something and were treasured--fiction and non-fiction (history, politics, art, music), I can't even imagine this.

    I have my bookshelves filled with books that are meaningful to me--favorite reads or books given to me or that I inherited--and among them are pottery pieces and small sculptures.

    I look at the books as part of my very being, of who I am and also as part of the art I have.
    It gives me such a good feeling to sit at the computer with my bookshelves nearby, filled with treasures.

    So, yes, books as decor, or as pseudo-intellectual props--that does annoy me, but I try to prioritize aggravations.

  6. As I (currently) work in a library, the only uniformity I like in an arrangement of books is that you know where to find the very volume you want - thus fiction is shelved in alphabetic order of author surname, and non-fiction according to Dewey Decimal category. Occasionally we do displays where books of a single predominant colour are positioned together to pique the interest of casual browsers;, or by a particular themes (ie. Crime, Romance,Historical, or perhaps hobbies)

    To have books on 'display' in one's home as a piece of art surely means they are to be viewed as an entire collection rather than plucked from the shelf to be enjoyed! 'You can look but don't touch' !

    In my own home the books jostle for position regardless of size, colour, or weight. The only segregation is between fiction and non-fiction - and that's not a hard and fast rule, either!

    Uniform runs of size or colour would, for me, take away the book's individuality; it's ability to catch our attention as we pass, as if saying "Come away with me and let's spend a while in each other's company...."

    I agree with the idea of buying wallpaper - but this idea of 'fake' books is not new - this company has been in business for quite a while now! :

    I just wonder how embarrassing it is for a host when guests try to pick 'books' off the wall?

  7. This remind me of the Mark Twain quote, "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody reads." And a perfect example of the gap between cultural signifier and signified, without any of the pretense that it is otherwise.

  8. Lisa: I think these sorts of people probably have people who dust for them. If not, then they'll soon learn that books are not static items. I think if I visited a house with this sort of thing going on, I'd definitely have to move one or two of the books behind the owner's back. Just as a friendly tweek. Either that, or I'd be too flabbergasted to do nothing but stare. :)

  9. Bernadette: I think this is your first time posting on my blog - Thanks for stopping by. Yes, you and I both are in agreement: the world is definitely coming to an end. Ha! I don't mind accumulation if the items mean something special to the homeowner. I'm a collector myself. But just to dress your home to impress has never amounted to much in my view.

  10. Ryan: So right. Books are not fashion items.

  11. Marcus: I LOVE that line: I choose my books to suit my self, not my shelf. PERFECTION. Are you new to my blog too? Thanks for stopping to post.
    And to leave such a brilliant quote. I may use it next week when I do Quote of the Day. :)

  12. Kathy: Yes, you're right, I must learn to prioritize my aggravation. :) I agree that books, if they reflect anything at all, should reflect who the person is who lives with them. Mine do. My blog does. All the books you see listed or talked about by me reflect who I am as an individual at this point in my life.

  13. Sue: There's a moment in one of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books when Thursday (who is a literature detective and has the ability to 'enter' a book - literally) goes up to some books on a shelf and touches the spines. As she does this, her hand melds into the book and the world of that particular book calls out to her.
    I like to feel that I can do this too, (not literarlly as Thursday does) but when I touch a particular book, I am touching a world that waits for me.

    The only separation I do is fiction and non-fiction and, as you say, Sue, not always. I do separate most paperbacks from trade and hardcover, but I'm not religous about it.

  14. Robin: I agree with Mark Twain's assessment.
    Maybe we ought to admire the people who decorate with books as having a lack of pretense, when in my view, it is just the opposite. But you know, this is not about having books in the home at all, it's about having the 'appearance' of books. You're perfectly right, Robin.

  15. You may understand me better than I understand myself, Yvette. Let me try saying again what I was stumbling towards. It was something along the lines of, "At least if you have real books, there's some pretense to having read them. Whereas all pretense seems dropped in this case. It's as though these people are making a gesture towards what the classics signify (culture, wisdom, taste) while feeling no shame for not having read them. Lit really has become a signifying symbol emptied of all meaningful content at this point."

    There seems a kind of weird purity to all this, of the kind that Aunt Augusta in The Importance of Being Earnest refers to when she says, "Ignorance is like a rare fruit--touch it and the bloom is gone." Your readers who advocate wall paper (which at least you don't have to dust) are pointing to the next stage.

    However, this gives me a new appreciation for those that Twain is mocking. At least they BELIEVE that reading a classic is a good thing, even if they haven't read it. Such hypocrites at least bestow worth on reading. Which calls to my mind the LaRochefoucauld quote, "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue." There's some hope for the individual who pretends to culture and who collects real (albeit unread) books for show. So I guess I prefer those who are pretentious to those you talk about who don't even pretend that the books are to be read.

    And (taking this one step further) I guess even those people are better than people who have no books at all (even of the fake or wallpaper variety) in their homes. Because once people really have dismissed books as significant, then we're really in trouble.

    Is that clearer?

  16. Oh Robin, you know that shame is an outdated concept at the moment. :)

    I welcome your additional comments and I tend to agree with your conclusion. I wish I had the knack to make myself clearer, it seems the harder I try, the woozier my prose. But I think we're on the same wavelength, more or less.

    These people, I assume, have the same sort of like-minded friends and visitors in their homes. People who either do not draw any real comfort from books, except as they 'look' on their shelves - books for 'show', or they are people who pretend to have read books they KNOW they are SUPPOSED to have read. Yes, I agree, people who, at least KNOW that books have a literary purpose are better off. There is hope for them. Homes WITHOUT books in them: oh the horror of it. ;)

    At least if you know what virtue is, you can pretend to it.

  17. Yep, first post here Yvette - usually your blog is too nice to soil with my contributions!

  18. You so right Yvette!
    Better an empty house and a mind full of books!

  19. Oh Marcus, you are always welcome here, m'dear. I hope my blog is not THAT NICE - Ha! I've been wondering when you'd show up. Thanks for taking the time to read my musings. Don't be a stranger, now. ;)

  20. Thank you, Martha. Books. I simply cannot imagine a life without them.

  21. I shudder to think about life without books...sometimes the best way to distract and escape from life's stresses, and to go on virtual vacations, free of charge, and hassle-free.


  22. I agree with you Kathy, one hundred percent. Books are life's blood to a reader or for that matter, to someone with any imagination.


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