He who destroys a good book kills reason itself.
Book lovers, you can exhale,’ assures The New York Times. Thanks to the interest of designers and interior decorators, ‘the printed, bound book has been given a stay of execution.’ According to the Times, even as the popularity of digital reading devices grows, the book’s status as a fetish object is giving rise to all kinds of new enterprises devoted to satisfying customers’ bookish desires. The newspaper cites online second-hand dealers Wonder Books as evidence of the trend. Initially a standard online operation, Wonder Books now provides ‘books by the foot’ to designers, set decorators and artists. According to the chief financial officer, Bob Thompson, the company’s success is explained by the move from ‘book-think to widget-think’, or to put it more plainly, they now consider books as much more than just reading matter.
Evidence of this trend came first-hand one morning while I was walking through Melbourne’s Federation Square. Browsing the local designers’ market I noted several stalls using vintage books as the primary raw material for home décor items. One designer displayed elaborate concertina room dividers fashioned from the cloth-bound covers of vintage books. Another simply sold old books in bundles wrapped with twine. A few stalls down I met a young woman who created small, wall-mounted shelves from hardback books. She told me that she collected her material from charity stores and deceased-estate sales. She specialised in interior design and explained that she liked taking books from one person’s home to incorporate into another’s. To borrow a phrase from the anthropologist Arun Appadurai, she liked ‘the social life’ of books and, she suspected, her customers felt the same way. I asked if she was kept busy with orders. ‘I have more orders than I can find books for! ’ she replied happily. ‘People tell me they are getting rid of their book collections – they take up so much room – but still, readers want to make sure there are books around the home. They’re throwing out their [contemporary] books and I can’t find enough [vintage ones] to keep up with demand.’
After this conversation, I made a quick survey of book lovers I knew who had recently started using e-reading devices. The one thing these readers noted in common was that their devices allowed them to voraciously consume books without worrying about how to store and transport their collections. Having just moved house, I can vouch for the fact that when you are crouched on the floor with an open carton, confronted by a hefty stack of Vintage contemporaries, an avalanche of well-intentioned titles that end with … for Dummies, and a mess of unread computer manuals you begin to think: do I really need these books around me? If I could just ‘Kindle’ all this stuff away, would that make me the electronic equivalent of a book burner?
In his book Shopcraft as Soul-Craft, Matthew Crawford writes about this desire to do away with ‘stuff ’ in favour of digital equivalents. The consumer fantasy of disburdening ourselves of physical things, he suggests, is directly related to an anxiety about our own materiality in relation to the limitless, disembodied power of the new devices in our lives. In our present social situation, confronted by material abundance but also threatened by economic and ecological boom and bust, it’s perhaps inevitable that we are adopting the survivalist’s mentality; but throwing away books is fraught with anxieties beyond concerns about consumerism or the environment. Destroying books borders on taboo. One need only think of the opprobrium of the librarian for readers who scribble in the margins, or of the boxes of forlorn books left on the footpath bearing limp paper signs beseeching us to ‘PLEASE TAKE’, to gauge our desire to protect the printed word. Finding ways to recycle books by turning them into household décor is a neat way of negotiating this cultural conundrum.
Books have long been said to transform the home. During the Renaissance readers used their books as writing desks or the equivalent of filing cabinets, filling them with notes, lists and clippings. More recently, books have played a central role in ‘dressing up’ personal spaces. Nicholson Baker’s 1995 New Yorker essay, ‘Books as Furniture’, starts out by considering the way books function as props in mailorder catalogues, signifying the possibility for enlightened leisure time. Baker goes on to provide a history of book display and searches for reasons for our attachment to books as lifestyle accessories. He concludes that old books are essentially sentimental artefacts:
The books now on our shelves become more ornamental and more precious – regardless of their intrinsic worth – by the charged, Lindisfarnean absence of the books that could have influenced or improved them … but can’t because they are lost […] These books happen to be the books we have now. They’ve made it … They’re survivors.
At present, when the book is undergoing a reimagining at the hands of Amazon, Apple and Sony, memorialising books by turning them into designer household furniture is an obvious way of celebrating the survivors. It guarantees that books as items of social, personal and intellectual history persist, even as technology renders them more and more spectre-like.
Of course, there are some who would see this interest in the material nature of the book as its own form of sacrilege. Surely the true value of the book comes from its content, not its container? One of the entrepreneurs profiled in The New York Times article, the improbably named Thatcher Wine, creates bespoke libraries for New York’s elite. He covers books with fabric and paper to match tastes, colour swatches and themes.
Perhaps it’s just his name, but something tells me that Thatcher Wine is the kind of young man who would earn the admiration of Jay Gatsby. Gatsby, the prototypical ‘self-made man’, was the proud owner of a substantial library created by a designer like Mr Wine. ‘This guy’s a regular Belasco,’ Gatsby tells his guests. ‘What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn’t cut the pages.’ The scene, like so many of Fitzgerald’s finest, depicts a small-scale social tragedy: Gatsby’s library is a folly of blind acquisition.
Yet it would be a mistake to judge too harshly those who judge a book by its cover. The growing popularity of e-reading devices draws our attention to the importance of the book as object and its inf luence on our reading habits. The format of our reading material has always informed how we think about the practice of reading. When the paperback revolution first began in the 1930s, some readers and critics were alarmed by the possibility of its easy disposability, as if this made the ideas somehow equally throwaway. In his essay, ‘Inventory’, on the history of the book, the French writer Michel Butor laments the advent of commercial publishing, suggesting it brought about the destruction of books even as they proliferate:
When the book was a single copy, whose production required a considerable number of work hours, the book naturally seemed to be a ‘monument’ … something even more durable than a structure of bronze. What did it matter if a first reading was long and difficult; it was understood that one owned a book for life. But the moment that quantities of identical copies were put on the market, there was a tendency to act as if reading a book ‘consumed’ it.
According to this logic, if the book can be easily consumed – purchased at the local store, read on the bus – so can the ideas within it. This anxiety about value for printed matter led to the fashion for displaying leather-bound editions like Gatsby’s collection. Of course, the purpose of such libraries was to challenge the supposed ‘unseriousness’ of other forms of reading. Gatsby’s error is his levity in the face of such imposing furniture. He fails to read the social symbolism of his library rather as he fails to read its actual contents.
Are we any better readers today? Butor’s claim that the handmade book is a monument ‘more durable than bronze’ is given an interesting twist by artists like Tom Bendtsen, who liberates books from shelves and fashions them into more obvious ‘monumental’ forms such as forts and towers. I suspect this is not precisely what Butor had in mind. Nevertheless it demonstrates our value for the book as idea made material – that almost magical transformation from one realm into another.
Walter Benjamin, an avid collector of books and objects, often wrote of the transformative potential of collecting outdated artefacts. Turning waste into treasure, he argued, is a radical, even revolutionary, statement. Deconstructing books to make lamps or eco-friendly planter boxes is a statement about books ‘shedding light’ or ‘growing thoughts’ but also offers commentaries on the need to conserve, protect and preserve. Jason Thompson, the author of the do-it-yourself guide Playing with Books explains:
We cannot hope to save all the books from the landfill – this is a Sisyphean task. But we can be inspired by the creativity of these artists, who reinterpret both lowly and lofty books into something more.
Similarly, those designers who construct coffee tables from coffeetable books or turn pulp fiction into paperweights remind readers that undervalued books (and their readers) have substance. Creative experimentation like this reminds readers that books are more than leather-bound libraries and that reading (as we have known it) is not the only acceptable use for books.
While booksellers lament the import of cheap titles via internet retailers and publishers fret at the complexity of pricing models for e-books, these new designer objects offer readers the reassurance that books will survive. Our impulse to hold on to old books is a way of guarding ourselves from permanent damage and loss. It is no accident that the most popular items created from old books are intended for domestic spaces: lampshades, side-tables, shelves and chairs. There is innovation here, but also this preservation instinct. A nostalgia not simply for the old object but for the functions it performed. The work of these artists and designers demonstrates that books are ‘containers’ in every sense: they hold the ideas of their creators, of course, but also the ideas of their readers; they hold our personal lives as lived and imagined (lists, mail, autographs, inscriptions); and they are vessels for our identities and our sensibilities (from Hollywood Wives to Madame Bovary).
By virtue of this very personal work that books perform, it is natural that they should be regarded an essential functional element in domestic space, even if they don’t remain essential reading material.