Book Chat: Interior Decorators and the Art of Creating Faux Libraries

This is not a bookshelf!

Every few years we rearrange our books.  Nothing fancy, nothing finicky, but after you reach the number of, say, 1,000 books, you need to order the chaos.  One afternoon my husband and I spent several satisfying hours sprucing up the two bookcases in the dining room. We pulled the books off the shelves, alphabetized them on the floor, then carried small numbers in cloth shopping bags to the shelves, so they would not get disarranged en route.

Some bibliophiles arrange by genre or publisher:  I’ve heard of Virago shelves, Penguin shelves, classic crime shelves, mass market mystery shelves, classic science fiction shelves, and Folio Society shelves. We have a simple system:  we alphabetize our fiction and organize biographies and history by the subject.  Our so-called reference section- which is double-shelved and occupies a dark corner of the study – at times defies bibliography. It features books on poetry and literary terms, The Oxford Book of English Poetry, R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country, a newish edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves,  a Pelican Complete Shakespeare,  an ancient Atlas, an Atlas from the ’80s, The Opera Book by Edith B. Ordway (1917), OK, I’ll Do It Myself (an outdated book on home repair), criticism on Greek and Latin texts, and several oversized volumes of Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy cartoons (which don’t fit on the other shelves, but perhaps are comic sociological treatises on women’s work, clothing, shopping, dating, and trying to find a husband in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – there is something slightly post-meta-meta-something about them!).

Today I decided to cozy up with two articles on books, “Simple Tips for Creating a Beautiful Bookshelf” in The Washington Post  and “Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?” in The Millions.

As I flicked through The Washington Post article and looked at the photos,  I thought, Wait, these photos can’t be right !   Honest to God, these so-called bookshelves are used to showcase plants, bowls, knickknacks – almost anything but books.  I was so confused.  I honestly thought they’d printed the wrong illustrations.

I do not consider this a bookshelf.

And then I read.  The decorators’ advice to The Washington Post writer raised my hackles. 

Set everything on the floor where you can see it, and take a few minutes to identify your key pieces. “Take inventory of what you have and group by size: large, medium, small and tall,” says Brandi Wilkins, an interior designer in Frederick, Md. “Keeping scale and proportion in mind, you want to make sure your decorative accessories and books vary in size and height.”

The  D.C.-area designer Shannon Claire Smith tells the reporter, “Just like in photography, you want to split each shelf into three sections: a left, a center and a right,” she says. Each shelf should contain accents that differ in height, but the configuration of pieces should not be the same everywhere.: “This creates a varied and collected look on a bookcase.”

This is small, but these are real bookshelves. In need of tidying!

 The not-D.C.-based Kat of Thornfield Hall says, “Look up the syllabus of  a university class you’re interested in and order the books. Or go to the the bookstore, browse in  a section that interests you, and pick them out the books yourselves.”

Do you suppose Jeff Bezos would give bibliophiles seats on his rocket ship to a more habitable planet?  Because it looks as though readers are DONE here – and our collections of books likely to be pulped if they cannot be accessorized.

Bill Morris at The Millions takes a more philosophical attitude in his essay, “Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?”   He writes,

While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”

Morris, a novelist and a staff writer at The Millions, is respectful of aesthetes who want to be surrounded by books, even if they don’t read them.  Nowadays you can hire library curators to buy your books by the yard and create a certain image. 

Morris explains that books have also become fashion accessories.

The fashion world has also recently adopted this books-as-accessories aesthetic. In the Times article, Nick Haramis explores how fashion houses have begun weaving books into their promotions, from runway shows to panel discussions to podcasts. At Dior’s 2022 fall menswear show, for instance, the runway consisted of a giant replica of the scroll of typing paper on which Jack Kerouac pounded out the original draft of On the Road. Etro recently sent each of its models onto the runway holding a small, nondescript book. Meanwhile, the supermodel Gigi Hadid trooped around Milan Fashion Week clutching a copy of Camus’s The Stranger. “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956,” Haramis writes, “but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.”

Hey, y’all, what say we take turns providing titles for the fashion designers? Enough with the Kerouac (though I do think the scroll replica was a brilliant design idea ) and Camus! How about Walden or The Blithedale Romance?  Models would be proud to flaunt Sue Kaufman’s classic, Diary of a Mad Housewife,  Proust’s Swann’s Way, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, or Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece, The Red Garden (magic realism and fashion surely go together), Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching towards Bethlehem, or Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart, a tragic exploration of the clash between the the classical music scene in Chicago and the culture of Lucy’s prairie hometown.

Any other suggestions?

Don’t ask the interior decorators!

5 thoughts on “Book Chat: Interior Decorators and the Art of Creating Faux Libraries”

  1. I’m not sure what’s worse; a house without books, or shelves of books that no one reads! What pleases my eye is to the the books I love 😀

  2. Faux libraries is accurate. At the opening of the pandemic, it became a temporary fashion for people to seat themselves in front of bookcases — so as to raise their status? But it quickly became obvious when the book shelf of books was phony because of what was there were clearly not read — or even understood. The question arises, who are these accessorizes writing to? what kind of delusions would such a person harbor?

    1. I do remember staring at Judy Woodruff’s books and those of the experts she interviews. I don’t doubt that they are avid readers, but I noted several biographies of the Founding Fathers. So often I couldn’t really make out the titles, though. Some people really don’t understand the value of books, but want to be bookish, so maybe that is the first step!

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