Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Books as furniture

with 3 comments

The author's library

I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of buying books by the foot. The Strand, my favorite bookstore in New York, offers a number of packages for consumers looking to furnish a library as quickly as possible, ranging from four hundred dollars per foot for antique leather editions to slightly less for cookbooks, art books, or legal volumes. The intended purchasers seem to be theatrical designers or, more often, interior decorators furnishing a different kind of set, a stage on which clients can buy the appearance of being voracious readers without going through the trouble of acquiring books one by one. And although it’s generally more economical—if less efficient—for me to get my books at retail, rather than wholesale, I’ve occasionally been tempted to order a few yards of reading material, just to see what serendipitous finds I’d discover there.

Recently, I read a post on Apartment Therapy in defense of organizing books by color, which seems to be an ongoing trend in interior design, or at least on home decorating blogs. It’s controversial, I think, because displaying a shelf of blue, red, or yellow books emphasizes their decorative function to an extent that makes us uncomfortable: not only have these books been judged by their covers, but even the words on the spine aren’t particularly important. The article makes some good points—it can be helpful for visual thinkers, it allows us to appreciate books for their visual qualities as well as for their content—but it won’t stop many serious readers from having a visceral negative reaction. For many of us, it parades the use of books as furniture a little too blatantly: it just doesn’t feel like a working library, however often the owner might pull a favorite green or teal volume from the shelf. And the idea of choosing books solely because of how they’ll look seems disrespectful to the authors whose life’s work they represent.

The author's library

Yet when I consider it more rationally, my instinctive response seems a little overblown. I’ll often organize books by size, for instance, on the theory that a row of bindings of the same height looks better than an irregular skyline of mismatched volumes. And while I’ve never bought a book solely because of how it would look in my collection, I can’t rule out that this might be a subconscious factor in some purchases. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way through William Vollmann’s unabridged seven-volume version of Rising Up and Rising Down, but I look at it with pleasure every day. The Great Books of the Western World set, which has followed me to every dorm room, apartment, and house since college, was originally acquired because I really intended to read all those books, but these days, it tends to serve the function for which many of its original buyers probably intended it—as a classy decorative note in an office or study. (The same thing, alas, seems to be happening with my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

But above all, I get a visceral pleasure from looking at the books in my library that can’t be explained by utility alone. Books are furniture, but they’re also the best furniture there is: when I’m sitting among my books, I feel more human, more alive, and more content. Of course, that’s mostly because my bookshelf is also a tangible autobiography. Every book I own represents a choice, or a moment in my life; I can often remember when and where each one was bought, or the interests it reflected at the time. As a result, my library is a reflection of my brain—a way for me to set up a desk and reading chair in my own skull—and it means more to me than it can to anyone else, which is something you can’t buy by the foot. As Thoreau said:

Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it.

And even if you buy a book for the sake of its color, if there are readers in the house, they’ll find it. So there’s no shame in buying books as furniture—it’s the best way there is to cover a wall.

3 Responses

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  1. I have an entire wall covered in books and it is by far my favorite part of the house. :-)

    C.B. Wentworth

    March 4, 2013 at 9:56 am

  2. Yes, in a way books are like furniture – as perhaps a favourite easy chair which one curls up in to ruminate and be privately engaged and absorbed. One of my favourite things to do is to go to my bookshelves and pull out a random book, open it and begin reading. This is so similar to retrieving a memory and savouring it. My bookshelves are higgledy-piggledy in arrangement, but sectioned into content for easy access. Some are stacked, some lined up in rows which look like a snaggle-toothed solid fence, often with leaning rails. An interior decorator might recoil at my habit of placing stones, small sculptures and odd bits like sticks and boxes separating my book piles. Who cares, though? In this day of extreme self-consciousness demonstrated by the desire to package and make public presentations of our habits, passions and allegiances, the life of the mind as represented by our personal library retains a whiff of privacy and mystery even though set in a place visible to others . One of my great joys in newly being in the home of an acquaintance is to get a view of their book-shelves( if any, and often sad to say thare are none!) and to be permitted a glimpse into their private reading by browsing the titles there. I have no friends who colour co-ordinate their reading material to read as so much embellishment or accoutrement to good taste. Wouldn’t want to know such types! G


    March 4, 2013 at 11:25 am

  3. A comfortable chair is essential. And yes, my office is my favorite room in the house. :)


    March 4, 2013 at 10:55 pm

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