by Tom Gauld)
A few years ago, I started noticing a small wave of a new kind of book: highly displayable coffee-table books about the display of books. They had names like “At Home With Books” and “Books Do Furnish a Room,” and felt a bit like an adjunct to that classic, recursive “Seinfeld” gag: Kramer’s coffee-table book about coffee tables that could double as a coffee table.
It has shown little sign of flagging. There was, more recently, “Bookshelf,” another book about the creative storage of books, and “My Ideal Bookshelf,” a collection of drawings of the spines of famous authors’ favorite books. This rash of metabooks felt prescient in a way, so prescient as to be slightly depressing in fact, because they seemed such a clear sign of physical books’ imminent death. When a book becomes pure décor, it ceases to live its intended life. So in this way, every fabulous wall of curated volumes in the loft of the TriBeCa bond trader who reads one rock biography a year is held together with coffin nails — an end of an era, described in furniture.
The Death of the Book has loomed over so many other eras, but today it seems more certain, at least when it comes to the physical book, because the e-book has been outselling the paper kind on Amazon since 2011. With reading, we all know what direction we’re now going in — it’s bright-at-night, it’s paved with e-paper, it’s bad for focus, it’s incredibly convenient. Those of us — myself included — who can’t yet bring themselves to read on a Kindle or an iPad feel increasingly fusty saying the same old thing: “I just like the feel of paper in my hand! The intimacy!” We preface the words with that thing about not being a Luddite. We talk about the fixity of real books, and the frightening impermanence of one you can download in seconds. We feel our sentences grow stale the second they leave our mouths.
By way of decorating a baby shower with the second edition of ‘staff patient communication’ because it is the right shade of pink, we here enter the realm of the truly objectified book.
So it is a funny thing, about this transitional era for the book, just how filled with bound pages it has been so far. A new kind of hard-copy bibliomania has without question sprung up along the banks of digital reading. I don’t really have a friend, either heavy reader or the sort still getting through the Malcolm Gladwell she got for Christmas, who doesn’t want, have or feverishly dream of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I am not sure that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves haven’t even become my generation’s — or at least my peer group’s — No. 1, most-desired décor scheme. Celebrities like Leelee Sobieski and Scarlett Johansson are now photographed in front of their vast spans of spines, the way woolly-browed rabbis and ponderous authors used to be. James Franco tweets shots of his bookshelves, and the landscape of 30-something lifestyle bloggers lights up like a stoner’s brain on an M.R.I.
In more paranoid moments, you might wonder if some marketing mastermind is behind any of this. In the 1930s, another era in which books produced greatly outnumbered books bought, Edward L. Bernays — the “father of spin” who more or less invented modern P.R. — was approached by a group of publishers, including Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace, to try to get people to buy more books, despite the tough economic times. Bernays is said to have pronounced, “Where there are bookshelves, there will be books.” He then went about getting top architects and decorators to put book shelving into the homes of their V.I.P. clients — clients encouraged to go forth and fill these shelves up, for the benefit of, among others, magazine photographers.
Certainly, you’d be hard pressed today to find a catalog from the likes of Restoration Hardware that doesn’t contain a photo with a swath of books within frame. Same with magazines like Elle Décor, the dense shelves of reading often found in unlikely places, like the dining room, the story being that you are peering into the inner sanctum of an eccentric and ebullient mind that just won’t quit. Even if it’s just canned soup and loneliness for dinner, it’s still a feast for the intellect.
That said, all this recent paper-book love does seem like nostalgia’s natural progression. My mother, born in 1945, in the dawning age of the ultraefficient stand-up shower, fantasized about having one of those deep, heavy claw-foot tubs. My grandmother, born in 1919, just before the wide spread of affordable central heating, always said how lovely it would be to have an inglenooked fireplace. And I, in the era of Amazon and near e-book domination, can’t stop looking at a photo — pretty appropriately, on a website called bookshelfporn.com — of a younger, less-scandal-racked Nigella Lawson in her home study, a tiny figure at her little desk, backed by a towering, romantic landscape of 3,500 books reaching the rafters. I see this, and I think: Oh, yes! Give it to me, Nigella!
Last month, a friend brokered an apartment stay for me in the Brooklyn condo of a fashionable, newly married couple whose place was empty while they themselves were on holiday. “They have floor-to-ceilings — with a ladder on a track,” gushed my friend, reminding me of the way people used to rate the fanciness of hotel rooms by whether there was a telephone in the toilet (“Hi, honey! Guess where I’m calling from!”).
In the sparse, expensive condo, the books were arranged according to color. In the pink zone, there were old sociology textbooks next to “Confessions of a Shopaholic”; in black, it was the dog whisperer Cesar Millan next to Conrad Black’s biography of F.D.R. I imagined the couple, dressed in matching peg-legged trousers and skinny Merino whatnot, taking the day to shelve their books: Isaac Asimov rubs dust covers with a Kevyn Aucoin makeup manual; Naomi Wolf with Fodor’s Panama. Once done, the couple have a glass of wine to celebrate their installation; their installation to installation.
“Do you know, honey, what books I really want to get into now?” one says to the other. “Purple.”
Of course, those who have long lived in the more traditional world of book collecting will tell you that none of this sounds new. The freshly mansed, semiliterate rock star who walks into one of London’s Charing Cross booksellers and asks for anything at any price, so long as it is bound in green Morocco leather, is an archetype much older than “This Is Spinal Tap.”
The difference now is that anybody can do this, on the cheap, and they don’t need to go to Charing Cross Road. A new kind of bookcase-filling industry has arisen. Today you can buy books for a penny on eBay or books by the pound from stores like Chicago’s Market Fresh, which advertises its retail model as “deli style.” New York’s Strand’s bright yellow-and-red bags once signified a reader serious enough to browse 18 miles of books. The Strand now leads a fast-expanding marketplace of books sold by the yard, and orderable by color, subject or even spine size. On the online craft site Etsy, hundreds of retailers offer so-called instant libraries, usually small lots of books that look nice together, all “ocean hues” or “custard to cream colored.” And if you are not quite sure what to do with the books, some sellers even provide guidelines. Here are some uses suggested by a vendor named beachbabyblues: “Wedding Centerpieces; Escort Cards; Party Favors; Table Setting; Vintage Book Collection; Photo Prop; Home Décor; Home Staging; Baby’s Room; Seasonal Décor; House Warming Gift; Gift for Any Occasion; Bridal Shower; Baby Shower; Thanksgiving; Rustic Christmas; Bridal Shower; Book Party; Party Favors.”
Notice any astonishing omission? By way of decorating a baby shower with the second edition of “Staff Patient Communication” because it is the right shade of pink, we here enter the realm of the truly objectified book, a world that has everything to do with extraordinary abundance and zero to do with content.
A couple of years ago, online book lovers freaked out when the reality-TV-star-turned-crafts-blogger Lauren Conrad posted a video in which she cut up a stack of Lemony Snicket titles in order to make a “unique storage space” (that is, a box) decorated with their spines. The response was so negative — Buzzfeed, not always the staunchest defender of the written word, called it “the worst craft idea ever” — that Conrad quickly deleted the video.
It might be worth rethinking this outrage. The number of books in the world today is literally uncountable, though millions have been digitized. What’s certain is that there’s a tumbling overflow, the sort that can mean only that some of the physical surplus needs to be repurposed. Lauren Conrad was actually working within a growing crafts cadre of making things out of books. Visit any hipster crafts fair, and just as surely as you will find someone making fruit bowls out of melted LPs, you will see items like etchings printed over pages sliced out of literature anthologies, or baby mobiles made from book-page origami, or, God help us, coffee tables made out of coffee-table books.
And there has been a small crop of more muscular visual artists working with books: England’s Jonathan Callan sculpts room-filling geological-looking structures from bound volumes; the Slovakian artist Matej Kren erects massive walls and forts using books as bricks, reincarnating, in a way, the medium back to something like its original, wordless state: wood.
A few years ago, while visiting New York City, I saw a sculpture outside the New York Public Library. It was almost half as high as the building itself and made of 25,000 books stacked in the shape of the word “READ.” I thought about what would happen to all those glued-up books after the library finished using them as an art installation. The official line was that the books would be donated to public schools across New York. Still, something felt a bit sacrilegious in this book-thing fronting an honest-to-God library. I felt some kind of rue, although the sentiment was too puritanical to last. Because I can’t imagine an author who has had books remaindered — who got a letter from her publisher asking if she’d like to buy back hundreds or thousands of copies of her own title to keep them from being pulped — who wouldn’t prefer the fate of art, even soggy outdoor art or crummy art à la Lauren Conrad.
Because, for the books, that is some kind of life. It is continuity. Just not the expected sort.
Correction: May 11, 2014
An article on April 27 about the fetishizing of books referred incorrectly to the sale of e-books. E-books have been outselling the paper kind on Amazon since 2011; it is not the case that all e-books have been outselling the paper kind since last year.