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Many thoughtfully decorated NYC apartments feature a stack of books surreptitiously arranged to serve as decor. Sometimes, said volumes become a makeshift end table primed for a mug of tea. Other times, an empty corner of a room is filled with a child-size stack of books with no obvious function beyond marking the owner’s literary conquests. There is nothing wrong with this. Once the knowledge and insights of its pages are soaked up, why not capitalize on the book’s aesthetic qualities to grant it a charming second life? We’re in the age of reuse, after all! But it’s our insistence on the presentation of the physical books themselves—as displayed on coffee tables and utilized as the base for status-ceramic and scented-candle tableaus—that reflects our image-driven society. More than the content of their pages, books have become emblems of cultural capital.
A search for “#shelfie” on Instagram garners 1.8 million posts, mostly literary related. A genre of shelfie—a photo of a collection of books, usually stacked with their spines outwardly legible, and often accompanied by a self-congratulatory caption marking the passage of time—has proliferated in certain culture and design-minded communities. Emily Weiss, founder & CEO of Glossier, recently posted a series of Instagram Stories dedicated to discussing how your book collection reflects your zodiac sign. After initially posting a stack of books with the caption “A Capricorn’s bookshelf. I am not even kidding,” she invited followers to post their own stack, writing, “The signs as bookshelves: go.” Astrology has become another trendy tool with which to learn and share more about ourselves and our personalities on social media. By making the connection between astrology and the book-stacking trend, Weiss tapped into an understanding of both as forms of outward self-actualization. A person’s identification with their sun sign and a person’s bedside book collection can provide equal and intersecting insights into their cultivated persona.
Though book stacking may have started as a penny-crunching, space-saving interiors hack, it has developed into a full-fledged design trend with cultural implications. Juniper Books is a company that trades on the idea of “elevating the printed book by enhancing its design quality and aesthetic.” Founded by Thatcher Wine, a professional bibliophile, Juniper Books offers options to buy sets of books organized around a theme, an author, or a genre, with custom designed book jackets. Additionally, they offer options to buy collections of books purely organized around the color of the book jackets or the size of the bookshelf the customer is seeking to fill. Here, the assumption is that books are being purchased solely for their aesthetic value, with little intention of actually being read.
Gwyneth Paltrow helped popularize Wine’s vision when she turned to him to curate wall-to-wall bookshelves for her L.A. home. The idea that people would showcase books on their shelves that they haven’t read doesn’t bother Wine; he has said that “home libraries, especially those that contain thousands of books, are not about constant use of reading. They are a reflection of where you’ve been and where you want to go.”
They’re also a way of connecting with consumers and projecting a certain persona. Hill House Home, a fast-growing, millennial-led bed and bath company, recently featured copies of Three Women and Trick Mirror (both literary nonfiction hits of 2019) on a bedside table in its marketing campaign. Those carefully placed tomes, within that carefully decorated bedroom, are meant to speak to a specific type of woman—the one sleeping on the “it” bed linens and reading the “it” books. In this instance, those books were used to call in an audience through a feeling of recognition.
Of course, books have always been a way of showcasing personality in a home. And it can’t be ignored that a highly curated stack of reading matter is a much more financially accessible design element than, say, an Eames chair. But books are one of our culture’s most prolific sites for learning, for self-bettering, for expanding our worldviews, and engaging in empathetic imagination. So why are we intent on amplifying (excuse my pun) the judgment of their covers?
Is it possible that we’ve reached peak literary parading?
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest