In any given week’s news about books, there are always 2-3 elegant uses that have nothing to do with reading them, but make great pictures, so I thought I’d consolidate the references in one place, with some conveniently located reading on the subject.
And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of
all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts
will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice
it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired
his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘‘And you
have read all these books, Monsieur France?’’ ‘‘Not one-tenth of them. I
don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?’’ —Walter Benjamin
Walking into Persephone Books one day, my partner was congratulated on her appreciation of their content, since, the cashier claimed, most people only came in to buy the uniformly grey-bound titles to decorate their homes. While getting to know one of the booksellers from Classic Bindings Ltd. at the Olympia Fair, he told me how he was excited that his business was moving from the realm of interior decorating to “real” bookselling, that is, selling books to people who intend to read them rather than en bloc manorial furnishings, buying by the book rather than by the foot (and let us not forget to extend to books Edgar Allan Poe’s weighing in on the Philosophy of Furniture). And before either one of us could afford bookshelves in our flat, we built them out of our books– efficient for display but not recovery.
As long as books have been produced they’ve been left unread, from the 16th century ducal library with an inch of dust kept by the upper crust of society as a sign of gentility– surely that is what libraries like the largest floating library in the world on the Queen Mary II, or at the new W Hotel in London are going for to some extent. Jeffrey Todd Knight in his ‘‘Furnished’’ for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture”, expands things further, there are books in his essay that lie on desks as would carpets, or books written on for scrap paper, practice, accounting purposes, all totally ignorant of which Canterbury Tale or book of the Bible they may be obscuring. The spectrum of use is very wide. He writes:
[W]e might gain a more inclusive understanding of what lies behind modern
taxonomies by considering texts in relation to a different category of things:
‘‘furniture’’—books that furnish space and furnishings that, like books,
have the capacity to fill minds with information.
Sometimes unreading happens to a single book, for instance the odd copy of M. Merleau-Ponty, covers well worn but unread, spine uncracked– something I have been told by a certain student of the École Normale Supérieure used to be carried around as a kind of intimidation tactic. Books can take on functions that have nothing to do with their content and everything to do with their form. Sometimes you might just like the weight in your bag, or the silent reverence of a secular space like the library, sometimes they help you think independent from themselves. And the emphasis on form isn’t always bad thing: as I have reported here, evidence is now showing that books that are aesthetically pleasing and well made do not suffer the same ravages of digital culture that mass produced paper backs have.
On a personal level, in the past when I have attempted to organize books by their covers and not content, I’ve actually found that emphasizing the visual allows me to remember more easily where they are, especially by color. So sometimes you can have it both ways and organize your books in a way that will get the compliments AND play to your own particular ars memoriae.
Some ways of organizing books:
- By color.
- By size. (a la the Duke Humphrey Library, Oxford. Or Oprah)
- Fore-edge out, chained.
- Fore-edge out.
- By sentences you can spell using their spines.
Some places to store books:
How do you use books that is off the beaten path of what we might normally expect? I’d love to hear from you.
Finally, beyond the jump I have pasted the most useful/amusing commentary on books and furniture yet written– two short chapters from Jackson Holbrook’s Anatomy of Bibliomania on “Books as Furniture” and “A Digression of Dummy Books”.