Over the years, I’ve been surprised (and also strangely delighted) by the passion with which our Apartment Therapy community approaches certain design ideas. Chief among them: organizing books by color. Few other topics evoke such vehement responses. The argument in favor is fairly self-evident: it looks pretty. (And maybe helps you find your favorite books, if your brain works a certain way.) The argument against delves more into the philosophy of things, and the idea of what a book is and ought to be. I’ve read your comments, and I know you feel strongly about this. A book, the thinking goes, is a repository of information. It is not a decorative object. To think of a book as something that ornaments your space, for its colorful spine or for any other qualities, reduces its importance as a channel of information and imagination. But… why can’t it be both?
Far before the printing press (and certain innovations in the creation of paper) made words printed on a page commonplace, scribes recognized the aesthetic, as well as informational, quality of the written word. Gaze at an illuminated manuscript in a museum — although the script and dialect maybe be too obscure to ascertain, the beauty of the text, and the care taken while writing it, gives it a fascination all its own. These texts were written at a time when books were very precious, because printed media was so difficult to create. This is, if you think about it, not unlike our own time.
Books, once again, are becoming rarer and more precious, not because of the dearth of printed media but because of its proliferation. At a time when writing words on a website and publishing them to an audience of millions of people is the work of mere moments (comparatively speaking, of course), physical books have, once again, begun to take on an air of luxury.
I think it’s this idea—that books aren’t truly necessary, that they could, conceivably, be replaced entirely by another medium—that is at the root of people’s discomfort with the idea of books as decor. The idea that an old book, with a world of information between its covers, could be displayed as a knickknack, as a charming relic of a bygone era, like a typewriter or a globe, is a distinctly uncomfortable one. (People of the internet, come at me with your modern defense of globes!) Valuing a book only for its cover, as the aphorism goes, seems to devalue the information within. It is a sign of the shallowness, the superficial fronting that defines modern life. Or is it?
I love books more than almost anybody you will meet. I grew up going to the library. I was a gawky, bookish child, and before I had friends books were my friends. So it was difficult for me to write the article I wrote for Apartment Therapy, a few years ago, comparing the merits of e-books to those of actual books. It was hard for me to consider the idea of a world without books, where all information is displayed neatly and coldly on screens. I tried to be objective, I really did. All the practical advantages—of ease of use, of portability—fall on the side of the e-reader. But as I wrote the post I realized that for me, reading a physical book will always be the far better experience. There is something about holding an actual book in your hand—turning its pages, feeling its weight, even smelling it—that feels true and deeply satisfying. Information no longer needs to have a physical essence, but I think on a visceral level we want it to, because being able to hold and feel something speaks to us.
At this moment I think the physical qualities of books are more important than ever. It’s what sets them apart from electronic media—what makes them a slower, more deliberate, and ultimately more pleasing experience. And it’s a small jump, especially for people who appreciate beautiful things, to go from valuing the fact that a book has a physical essence to valuing the beauty of said essence. At a time when the chief advantage that books have over other media is their physical, tactile qualities, the value of books as objects that elevate the aesthetic of a space is more important than ever.
Opponents of the books-as-decor idea always set the idea of appreciating the looks of a book against the appreciation of its contents, as if those things were mutually exclusive. But appreciating the aesthetic qualities of books need not in any way obviate the importance of what’s within (just because they are being used as decor doesn’t mean they can’t be read or referenced). Appreciating their beauty actually underscores their importance.
We live in a time when books are more accessible than ever. Many books, ones that are in the public domain, can now be read on the internet, absolutely free of charge, whenever you would like. Others you can buy for your e-reader pretty much instantaneously. But although these books are, in theory, easy to get to, they’re also easy to ignore, in light of the inundation of information enveloping us daily. What’s harder to ignore? Actual, physical books—especially nice looking ones…put on display on your coffee table or nightstand.
A friend of mine works as a merchandise manager at a major furniture store, one where vintage books are commonly used as props. One evening, while over at her apartment, I picked up a book from a stack of titles that were intended to be covered with paper for a vignette. I began reading. I was fascinated. What I had discovered, quite by accident, was “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay“, an account of a European tour taken by two young women in the 1920s. From my friend Hannah’s apartment in the suburbs of Houston I was suddenly transported to a world where steamships were the best way to journey between continents, where bedbugs were a charming footnote and not a disaster, where travel was, for a certain class of young women, valued just as highly as education. That book took me somewhere—through a door that, without the physical presence of that book, I would never have known existed.
The persistent, and the beautiful, presence of books in our lives is a constant reminder of the kind of escape that they provide. They’re a door in the wall, a portal to other existences whose presence is sometimes obscured by the ivy of modern life. Look, maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think a book will ever achieve the charming obsolescence of a typewriter or a globe or whatever silly artifact currently decorates moderately-priced American restaurants. As long as there are people who are curious, and literate, books will always retain their relevance. Sure, some books that are very beautiful have very dumb things in them—but on a grand scale, a vote for the attractiveness of books is also a vote for the persistence of the ideas that have been contained within books for thousands of years—and for the value that the physical presence of the written word continues to provide. And that’s a good thing, no matter how you decide to organize or display your books.