Have We Entered the Age Where Physical Books are Desired Just for Decoration?

Actress Leelee Sobieski in front of the book shelves in her home (Photographed by Jason Schmidt, Vogue, October 2012)
Actress Leelee Sobieski in front of the book shelves in her home (Photographed by Jason Schmidt, Vogue, October 2012)

A few years ago, I started noticing a small wave of a new kind of book: highly displayable coffee-table books about the display of books. They had names like “At Home With Books” and “Books Do Furnish a Room,” and felt a bit like an adjunct to that classic, recursive “Seinfeld” gag: Kramer’s coffee-table book about coffee tables that could double as a coffee table.

It has shown little sign of flagging. There was, more recently, “Bookshelf,” another book about the creative storage of books, and “My Ideal Bookshelf,” a collection of drawings of the spines of famous authors’ favorite books. This rash of metabooks felt prescient in a way, so prescient as to be slightly depressing in fact, because they seemed such a clear sign of physical books’ imminent death. When a book becomes pure décor, it ceases to live its intended life. So in this way, every fabulous wall of curated volumes in the loft of the TriBeCa bond trader who reads one rock biography a year is held together with coffin nails — an end of an era, described in furniture.

The Death of the Book has loomed over so many other eras, but today it seems more certain, at least when it comes to the physical book, because the e-book has been outselling the paper kind on Amazon since 2011. With reading, we all know what direction we’re now going in — it’s bright-at-night, it’s paved with e-paper, it’s bad for focus, it’s incredibly convenient. Those of us — myself included — who can’t yet bring themselves to read on a Kindle or an iPad feel increasingly fusty saying the same old thing: “I just like the feel of paper in my hand! The intimacy!” We preface the words with that thing about not being a Luddite. We talk about the fixity of real books, and the frightening impermanence of one you can download in seconds. We feel our sentences grow stale the second they leave our mouths.

So it is a funny thing, about this transitional era for the book, just how filled with bound pages it has been so far. A new kind of hard-copy bibliomania has without question sprung up along the banks of digital reading. I don’t really have a friend, either heavy reader or the sort still getting through the Malcolm Gladwell she got for Christmas, who doesn’t want, have or feverishly dream of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I am not sure that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves haven’t even become my generation’s — or at least my peer group’s — No. 1, most-desired décor scheme. Celebrities like Leelee Sobieski and Scarlett Johansson are now photographed in front of their vast spans of spines, the way woolly-browed rabbis and ponderous authors used to be. James Franco tweets shots of his bookshelves, and the landscape of 30-something lifestyle bloggers lights up like a stoner’s brain on an M.R.I.

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The New York Times

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