Architecture and Design

The Case Against Books as Home Décor

Just inside the front door of my house is a small library table that’s home to a short stack of books I have no intention of ever reading. I am not interested in Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s handsomely bound memoirs, published in Bombay in 1942. I don’t care to read Chapter XV: Disorders of the Nose and Nasopharynx, or any other part of The New People’s Physician, Volume 5. I suppose I might at least make it through the slim volume entitled The Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Banington Macaulay, published in 1897 and which I presume is not a recounting of the sex acts of various Italians of the late nineteenth century.

It’s the spines of these books, and not their contents, that drew me to them. Their covers of embossed leather, inset color illustrations, and brightly foiled lettering are why I plopped down a couple dollars and brought them home. I refer to these pretty books I don’t care to crack as “vanity books” and, in my defense, they are part of a collection of thousands of old hard covers that I have read, or purchased because I plan to read them and then, time and mortality permitting, plan one day to read again.

All of which is a preamble to a grievance long lodged in my book-collecting psyche: Books as décor. Books as props, stacked here and there as adornment; neatly bound volumes filling shelves for the sole purpose of making you look like “someone who reads.”

I first learned of this peculiar crime in the early 90s from an interior designer I used to know well before he stopped speaking me (because, I like to believe, I had actually read the books that line the walls of my home, which he found irksome), and was reminded of it when an old friend texted me last week to inquire if I arrange the books in my home by color.

“No,” I texted back. “Fiction and newer non-fiction in the upstairs library, on opposite walls. Collections and memoirs in the downstairs living room, cookbooks in the breakfast room, older non-fiction in the living room and in several boxes in the basement. Why?”

I received no reply. But I headed to the internet to find out if books were still being marketed this way. They are. Most annoyingly by a company calling itself Books by the Foot, which unashamedly offers to “create a very inexpensive yet impressive personal or professional library to your specifications. This is ideal for new homes, corporate offices, vacation homes, even clients too busy to build their own libraries.”

Which, as someone who has lived his life with his nose pressed into a book, looking always for the next great read, makes me want to claw my own eyes out.

It got me to thinking, though. Is this what we’ve come to? Ashamed that we’re unable to find time in our busy schedules to actually read a book, we are paying for them by the pound, then displaying them in our homes in case someone should wonder if we, what? Are bookish? Know how to read?

I e-mailed the folks at Books by the Foot. Could I request books based on their titles, I pretended to want to know. “What if I am collecting books with the word ‘snood’ in the title?” I asked. “Can I buy a roomful of books all containing exactly 214 pages, and bound in navy blue leatherette to match my ottoman? Am I required to read the books I purchase by the foot, from you?”

“Thank you for your inquiry with Books by the Foot,” came the grammatically questionable reply to my inane questions about this company’s asinine service. “We would be happy to check our inventory to see if we have the particular color you are looking for, what color do you have in mind? No, you are not required to read the books you may buy from us, however they are all real readable books. Best Regards, Kelsey.”

It’s fitting, isn’t it, that Kelsey doesn’t really read her e-mails? Words are a chore, and clearly she skimmed my e-mail before replying to only one of my several questions. No matter; I’ve moved on. This week I plan to reorganize my entire books collection, by height and weight and city of publication. I want people to think I’m well traveled and know the difference between big and small.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela