The shelf life of a library

Second Take

The shelf life of a library

I’ve always been drawn to illustrations and photographs of bookshelves but didn’t think there were actually books that catered to such bibliophilic whims until I stumbled one day on At Home With Books. It’s probably the first coffee table book I’ve ever bought, but I couldn’t resist the sumptuous, colourful and tasteful display of photographs showing the beautiful, elegant personal libraries of collectors and writers.

Later I discovered there was more to the book: short essays about how to care for your personal library, ways to categorise books, the repair and restoration of books and most usefully, the kind of furniture and lighting that should surround bookshelves. The text is by Estelle Ellis and Caroline Seebohm, the photographs by Christopher Simon Sykes.

It wasn’t long before I came across the second bookshelf-book, and this one I liked even better: Alan Powers’s Living with Books. Once again, pages crammed with photographs of bookshelves, except this one didn’t bother with the tastefully appointed, well-ordered personal libraries of the rich and famous, instead it displayed the bookshelves of humble bibliophiles. There’s an intensity to this book, a certain literary quality in its choice of bookshelves that makes it more appealing than At Home With Books.

Here books are crammed all over the house, under staircases, on the landing, on the windowsill, and in the bathroom. The bookshelves are of all sizes, even tiny ones just fitting into some nook or cranny. These bookshelves and libraries felt more familiar — like the one you might see in a friend’s house.

An even odder bookshelf-book is Alex Johnson’s Bookshelf showcasing contemporary bookshelf design. Gone are the conventional bookshelves — what you see here is experimental, avant-garde shelving. Swirling, curving bookshelves and tables and chairs that turn or meld into furniture. This book is at once about bookshelves as pure design and bookshelves as pure  utilitarian spaces.

There are more bookshelf-books, with titles like Books Do Furnish a Room, Decorating with Books, and Books Make a Home. They are all more of the same — glossy coffee table photographs of bookshelves that have more to do with interior design than bibliophily. Turning to something a little more thoughtful, we come to the Unpacking My Library series. The first in the series is ‘Architects and their Books.’ A look at the libraries of 12 acclaimed architects and their relationship to books and space.

The second in the series is the one I am drawn to: ‘Writers and their Books’. You can feast your eyes on the books and bookshelves of several contemporary writers and also hear them talk about their libraries. What books do they want to own and shelve? Who do they read? What do they collect? Some are more exciting to read about (and view) than others — James Wood, Lev Grossman, Philip Pullman and Claire Messud. A similar sort of book is An Ideal Bookshelf by Thessaly La Force which gathers not only writers but cultural figures from around the world to ask them what defines their ideal bookshelf.

Now I had to dig deeper: what kind of other bookish visual books were there for the taking? I soon found one that didn’t have to do with bookshelves, but with book as an object. Abelardo Morell’s A Book of Books intrigues me even today, each time I open the book: black and white photographs of books that resemble sculptures. It’s intriguing because these are pictures of books that make them startlingly look like something else: close-ups of water-damaged books that haunt you, a page of a dictionary blown up looks like an alien landscape, text bleeding into the page of decaying books that hints at something more phantasmagorical.

If you look at the bookshelves of most bibliophiles, you’re bound to find at least one shelf that is odd. Odd for the books they hold. They’ll all be books about something special or peculiar or quaint to the person who has bought or collected them. A shelf of books on maps or rows of books about ships or books on esoteric food. This, then, is our most personal shelf. We don’t expect others to really share our intense interest in these subjects, in these quaint obsessions. Now I too have an odd, personal shelf: books about bookshelves. It’s the ultimate tribute to the book as artefact, to the materiality of books.


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