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.