Books for Decoration, Not for Reading

Barbara Vey -- January 6th, 2011

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press on Twitter, I was led to an article in the New York Times about people who hire someone to fill their home libraries.  At first I thought it sounded like such a cool job to roam book stores and pick out books that the owner would enjoy reading, while filling their empty shelves.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  While some clients are interested in maybe some day reading what’s in their personal libraries, a lot more seem to look it more as a design space.  Books are chosen for size and then covered with paper to match the decor of the room.  Other clients like the fancy bound look of the old classics and don’t even care what language they’re written in as long as it makes the room look good.

This makes me sad on so many levels.  I get upset just thinking about all the great books out there I’ll never get to read because I’ll just run out of time.  I imagine the authors toiling away, putting their heart and souls into their books only to have them wrapped in paper and used as props in someone’s home or business.  Unlike the empty Christmas presents under the trees in stores wrapped up so pretty with shiny paper and bows, books have real content under the jacket.  And I have to wonder if any of these people with so much money to hire someone to “decorate” their library ever read any books for pleasure and where they keep them.

One of my bookshelves. It isn't pretty, but it contains some of my favorites.

One of my bookshelves. It isn't pretty, but it contains some of my favorites.

I love going into people’s homes and perusing their bookshelves.  It’s always easy to spot their favorite books by the tattered, well-worn cover.  I know I’m a romantic at heart and I’ve always owned books that I loved enough to read more than once (some every year).   Most covers are a work of art themselves.  I’ve pick up more than one book because I loved the cover.  And I’ve seen how excited the authors get when they receive their covers and show them off online in blogs, websites and Facebook.

Maybe I’m overreacting, ok, most likely I am, but books just mean something so much more to me.  Kind of like how other people feel about their pets.   People can buy books and do whatever they want with them.  Obviously, everyone wants their books to sell.  But does it matter to an author if their book is covered and left to languish on a shelf as decoration?  I sure don’t have the answer.  How do you feel about this?  Is it ok with you?  Or is selling a book the bottom line and what happens next doesn’t matter?   Or doesn’t any of it really matter if we’re all headed for the digital book age anyway?

Bottom Line: “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”~ Garrison Keillor

90 thoughts on “Books for Decoration, Not for Reading

  1. Christine

    I think these decorating stories get revived every few seasons since this is very old news–decorators and stagers have been doing this for many years. Obviously the owners don’t have anything personal to fill their shelves or just kowtow to a designer who thinks everything should look uniform. Boring! And of course maybe they just don’t read. It’s comparable to the people who go out and buy the ‘hot’ literary title that gets all the press just to appear in the know, place it so it can be seen, but never bother to read it (you can tell because the spine has never been cracked open). At least the author is getting a royalty.

  2. Nicki Salcedo

    Books should be read or given away. If I have a book too long that goes unread I find someone to share it with. What if it would have been someone’s favorite book, but it sat unopened on my shelves? Unnatural to have unread books. Its like having uneaten food. Thanks for sharing, Barbara!

  3. Leslie Langtry

    I totally agree! I’ve been to homes even here in the midwest that have done that. Hundreds of beautiful hardbacks without one single crease in the binding. So sad to think they have great books they want to look at but will never, ever read.

  4. erika

    I felt the same way when I read the article. I was also shocked about how much people are willing to pay someone to collect books for them (it would never occur to me to outsource my book collecting, let alone pay thousands of dollars to do it). On the one hand it’s sad and frustrating, but I guess the one saving grace is, at least books are considered fashionable!

  5. Charles

    Thank you for an interesting article, Barbara, but my comment is about your lead-in. The past tense of LEAD is LED, not LEAD. As in “I Led Three Lives” – I blame the whole mess on Led Zeppelin. In this case a pun has changed the way many people spell – in this case, incorrectly.

  6. Trixie

    Since these homeowners are clearly not really interested in the books wouldn’t it be more economical to purchase cheap styrofoam and cover that with paper? I’m seeing a correlation: Don’t read books, be a fool, be soon parted from your money.

  7. Brad Parks

    Oh, Barbara, you nailed it like always. For me, perusing my bookshelf can be an exercise in autobiography — remembering where I read the book, or when in my life I read it and what it made me feel at the time. Can’t do that with a bunch of decorative books you’ve never read. I’ll take the untamed, un-matching wildness of my shelves any day…

  8. Lori

    A sad benefit of this type of thing for a little girl I briefly nannied was that the decorator chose for her little brother’s new room a display copy of The Runaway Bunny – she was so excited to show me because we’d read that one several times from the library before I had to quit or get fired. The only books her home contained prior to the designer were a few of the electronic noise-making ones… :(

  9. James Whittaker

    I think books are a lifestyle. As a result more and more people are treating them like part of their lifes style. Incorporating books into the aesthetics of our daily life is a great thing and should be celebrated. How people choose to do so is their own business. I also think that insinuating people don’t care or haven’t read a book that still looks perfect is ridiculous – I take great pains to keep my books in the best possible shape. And I read them. I also think it fatuous to suggest that people only purchase books they intend to read immediately. My home is strewn with books that await my attention.

    Having just curated the books selection for a major resort I can atest to the importance of books within the landscape of design, art and life. It is a tremendous leap that books are now brought off the shelf; out of the library; and removed from boxes to be celebrated as part of what defines us. As this was a tremendous effort, on my part, and committment, on behalf of the resort, I would be loathe to suggest it was done as “window dressing” and meaningless. Never before have I seen such support for books and the meaning and experience they can deliver.

    Has anyone not noticed the proliferation of books at our favorite fashion shops. I call this the “Anthropologie effect” and it is growing by leaps and bounds. More and more books are being incorporated into the “aesthetics” of our lives and not merely the intellectual side of our being. Aesthetics is where fashion and intellect meet. Aesthetics is not trivial but the most thoughtful way we define ourselves. Books are being brought into this scenario not as mere objects, like the flowers in a vase, but to help define and “explain” what it is we believe and who we are.

    Successful publishers will take care and pay attention to detail in the books they produce. These books will be thoughtfully placed in the homes of people who buy them and not stored, shelved or hidden in their libraries. For the others the only option is that they be downloaded on our iPads, Nooks, Kobo’s and Kindles.

  10. Alana Abbott

    I remember reading that at some English country manors, the books were often shelved by size and color, and were chosen as thick tomes meant to look impressive. I’m sure that’s not universal, of course, but the person I was discussion the scenario with, who had been to, and been filmed in documentaries set in several of them, made it seem like it was a common thing. So I suspect this isn’t new — and that a sale is still a sale in the eyes of a publisher! :)

  11. Melissa Bov

    I remember being shocked in 1979 when in my first stint in a book store I got a call from a designer in Memphis, TN, wanting a source for leatherbound or lookalike bindings for 15 feet of shelving. She didn’t care what the subjects were or titles.

  12. Liz Kreger

    Amazing …. and sad. Yes, I like the look of a (fairly) neat library, but that’s a not a real bookshelf. Personally, I liked your bookshelf, Barb. Mine is a combination of uniform and messy. Uniform because they’re usually by author (which I’ve read) and messy because books are piled nilly-willy awaiting their turn to be read.

  13. Tabatha

    I am sympathetic with your passionate response to hearing about books used purely for decoration, Barbara. I like using books for decorative purposes (I recently ran a post on altered book art), but if that is the only use you can find for books, you are missing the heart of the matter.

    The comment from Lori was very touching.

  14. Inanna Arthen

    I’m kind of surprised that you’re unfamiliar with a centuries-old practice among the wealthy: faux libraries in which the shelves are simply panels of book spines. Sometimes this was intended for a pretentious appearance, sometimes it had a practical purpose (the panel concealed a hidden doorway or a safe or something). But there are still numerous companies that manufacture such panels today, like these two (among many):

    Obviously, creating a library of real books as decoration is a step up from that! At least someone can read the books if so inclined.

  15. Christine

    I also agree with Nicki about having unread books on my shelves. Maybe it’s because I was a librarian but I regularly ‘weed’ my collection and pass on books–unread titles I’ve realized I’m not interested in after all and read titles that were ‘one-timers’–to my library book sale. They can use the money to buy more books and I can use the space so I can buy and have a place for more books–a win win situation all around!

  16. Tawna Fenske

    My parents got me a Kindle for my birthday, and while I love it for travel and occasional one-handed reading in bed, I have to admit there are a lot of books I just have to own in the physical form. I want to see them there on my bookshelves looking dog-eared and colorful. They may not be pretty, but they certainly make my shelves seem cheerful.


  17. Kitti

    I see positives in this “designer book” practice. They are:

    1. Books are being purchased. Authors and publishers, or used booksellers, get paid.
    2. Books lend prestige, which is sure to influence some youngster’s minds
    3. SOMEONE is likely to browse these books at some point in time. They may be decorative, but they’re real, and the potential is there!

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