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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Books for Looks?


This was our Saturday afternoon homecoming. Can you blame us for staying home on Sunday with books, magazines and old newspapers?

A friend who braved the weather yesterday to visit Dog Ears Books brought me a section of the New York Times from earlier this month. For those of you who missed the article my friend knew would interest me, “Selling a Book by Its Cover,” you can find it online here.


The idea is that a well-stocked library is part of the design of a house. It’s part of interior decoration:
Jeffrey Collé, a builder of vast Hamptons estates that mimic turn-of-the-century designs, wouldn’t think of omitting a library from one of his creations. A 16,800-square-foot Shingle-style house on 42 acres in Water Mill, N.Y., comes with a $29.995-million price tag and a library Mr. Collé had built from French chalked quarter-sawn oak; with about 150 feet of shelf space, there is room for more than 1,000 books.

It’s up to the buyers or their decorator to fill that space, said Mr. Collé....

Not all clients rule out the possibility of reading their home décor--some, for instance, want only books in English for that very reason—but others are happy to have stacks of books all wrapped in white (or black) as “design elements” in a room where nothing is left to chance, presumably in a house where every tschoschke and its position on a table has been carefully planned. (I guess some people really live like this.) My friend was appalled and thought I would be, too. Well, I can’t see much value in books as nothing more than stacks of white or black, but shelves of real, readable books? Maybe someone will read them—if not the people who paid for the house, then their guests or their grandchildren.


But are we, as one trend-spotter in the article claimed, turning codices (the old word codex is now new again, distinguishing a printed, bound book from an e-book) into fetishes? Fetish! That’s pretty loaded language. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing and making an argument, I looked around my own house and came up with more questions. Why do we photograph natural objects and put those photographs on our walls? Why do we (some of us) have stones and shells and animal bones on our bookshelves, along with the books. Is that small mammal skull a fetish? Those deer jawbones? (Where did my deer jawbones get to, anyway?) Is there something all of these objects on shelves have in common?


[Caveat, disclaimer, disclosure, whatever: There has never been an interior decorator involved in our house. I probably don’t need to say so. Surely our books and bookshelves speak for themselves. Just remember that that’s beside the point, okay? Don’t get distracted! What do books, shells, stones and skulls have in common?]

Here’s what I think. We are physical inhabitants of a physical world and also spiritually connected both to one another and to other aspects of the world, and so we bring into our individual home spaces some of the objects from the larger world that make that larger world our home, too. This stone connects me to a beach covered now by snow and ice. A walk on another beach hundreds of miles away turned up this shell. Finding jawbones of a deer down by the creek years ago, I felt my connection to an individual animal I might never have seen but who was, for a while, a neighbor, and the little raccoon (possum?) also was another being like us, once warm and alive, needing food and shelter. Like these animals, we will one day lose our warmth and life, but even then, like the stone and the shell and bones, we will leave some traces behind.


Every book on the shelf contains human life. Traces, lives, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, events. Readers and non-readers alike sense that books connect us to other human beings in our own and in earlier times, every book a product of other inhabitants of our home, this earth. Wanting them around us, it seems to me, is recognition of their value. Whether or not it constitutes fetishism, I leave for others to decide.

I am fairly well convinced, though, that I need to make crisp new dust jackets for the 25-volume set of the complete works of Mark Twain in my bookshop, its covers worn and faded by the years. A lot of people do judge books by their covers--at least, the cover gives them their first impression--and to many the look of the books on their shelves is important, so Mark Twain needs a facelift. Unless someone comes in to buy the set before I get around to the beautification project. And I have all those stones and shells and bones to handle and rearrange before I start making dust jackets. First things first.

14 comments:

Gerry said...

It occurs to me that I could carefully encase my books in glass blocks. They could be a design element and insulation both. One day, in a distant future, someone might break them out of their confinement and, er, read them again.

P. J. Grath said...

Encase them completely, do you mean? (I remember the board-and-glass block bookshelves of undergraduate days.) We did not put bookcases on the north wall of our living room to serve as insulation, but every little bit helps when that fierce wind blows.

flandrumhill said...

I lend out as many of my codices as possible as it shifts the responsibility for dusting them to my friends instead of me ;)

I've become more of a minimalist over the years but still find it difficult to part with my seashells, stones and favorite books.

P. J. Grath said...

What would a home look like if furnished only with "necessities"? How many pots and pans, plates, knives and forks would you allow yourself? We could all probably do it for a while, but remember, Thoreau did not live his lifetime in that sparsely furnished cabin. Amy-Lynn, I'm sure your living space is a reflection of you, with just the right number of thoughtfully chosen treasures.

Walt said...

An aquaintance read that article and said "it costs that much and only has 150 feet of shelf space for books?" and I find myself agreeing.

From a rough estimate (since I can't measure my bookcases back home in Woodstock while I'm here in Northport) I think I can account for over 300 feet of shelves in free-standing bookcases, and we also have 4 built-in cases. And that's in a much smaller house.

It would be nice if they were all French chalked quarter-sawn oak, of course, as that would certainly enhance the decor :)

--
Walt

mary said...

I try to only purchase what I really love, from clothes to knickknacks to food. During frugal times, I take advantage of the library and inevitably I end up purchasing the books I love to re-read someday or do just have. A good book is like a memory and we want keepsakes of our memories.

P. J. Grath said...

Walt, I tend to let numbers wash over my head much of the time, but your acquaintance's astonishment seems appropriate. Maybe I'll measure our home bookshelves one of these days. There are four rooms with significant bookshelf space....

Mary, "buy what you love" sounds like a good rule. This morning I started thinking again about a book I did NOT buy 14 years ago. I'm still kicking myself on that one.

Dawn said...

Sometimes I think I need to buy a bigger house just to have places for all my favorite things. Then I go through phases where I want a smaller house and less favorite things...then I give up and just live with the stuff I have. Which includes a big glass bowl filled with stones picked up along the way of life. And of course books..

P. J. Grath said...

I've read that the secret to happiness is to want what we have, and that seems to sum things up pretty well. But I too, Dawn, sometimes yearn for stark simplicity or even, less often, spacious luxury. Aren't we funny creatures? It's a wonder our dogs don't laugh themselves silly over us!

Dawn said...

I think it's very possible that Katie DOES laugh herself silly over us...after we go to work.

mary said...

Did you do anything to get your Petoskey stones to show their spots when they are dry? I have a bag of Petoskey stones in the garage that look like, well, a bag of stones. I want to bring them indoors and set them out with the driftwood from Lake Superior, the bowl of sea shells, the wine bottle of beach sand, the basket of pine cones, ...

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, ha! Is that why I take Sarah to work with me, so she won't be laughing at me behind my back?

Mary, the two Petoskey stones you see here (the stone on the left is a different kind of fossil) are showing their spots (like leopards!) so well for two reasons. The first is that they are not very nice, smooth stones but still have the raised ridges of the coral. And then I did a little Photoshop fixing of the image, too, to bring out the pattern better. If you don't want to keep your Petoskey stones in water, you might try a little oil on them or--my favorite method--rub each stone in the crease between your nostril and cheek a few times. David is always after me to "varnish" my stones, but I prefer to keep them as natural as possible.

Kathy said...

I have so many skulls and feathers and bits of bone and stone...it feels that bringing these into the house is like recognizing that we are deeply deeply connected with the natural world. Thanks for a great blog, Pamela!

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, you’ve reminded me of the first time I was ever inside the house belonging to my good friend and bookselling colleague, Mary Carney, up in the U.P. When I came back out to the car, I was telling David about the house, the cat, all the books, the beautiful wasp nest--. He interrupted me to ask, “Does she have any objets de virtue?” Huh? “What’s that?” I asked back. “Beautiful objects,” he explained. I wondered if he had been listening at all. “What do you mean? I TOLD you she has a wasp nest!” I guess he was thinking more along the line of Chinese vases....