|High browse: London architects Levitate created this |
literary staircase from words and oak
In January Amazon revealed that it was selling more books in Kindle format than any other, and global sales of eBooks are expected to surpass the $1bn mark this year. In an age when literature is increasingly going digital, books hold a curious role in our homes. There aren't many purchases which, once used, would be placed on proud display in our living rooms, considered a vital part of our identity and carted round with us as we moved from one home to the next – particularly not when a virtual equivalent exists. And yet that's precisely what we've been doing with our books. Will the digital revolution change that?
Perhaps. After all, both the music industry and the print media have felt the heat of virtual competition. But in the meantime, there's every indication that, while we might do most our reading on-screen, the living room tradition of displaying our (non-digital) books is alive and well. When Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron were photographed perched on the sofa of the Downing Street kitchen, attention immediately turned to the bookshelves (black, £665, available from OKA Direct). What did the presence of Mrs Beeton's Household Management say about our Premier's family? And why do they keep the Complete Works of Shakespeare in the kitchen? Similar treatment was meted out to both Milibands during the run-up to the Labour leadership contest. When it comes to the crunch, nosing around someone's bookshelves is interesting.
"You can tell a lot about someone by their choice of books – and how many they've got," says Doug Jeffers, owner of the My Back Pages bookstore in Balham, south London. "You can tell their political views, their interests, when they did most of their formative reading and, as a result, how old they are. You can even guess where they go on holiday and what they do for a living."
Household stylist Abigail Hall agrees. "I often style houses for sale and you'd be amazed how important the contents of your book case can be. People form judgments about the type of person who lives in the property as a result. So the paperbacks they've bought on holiday go straight into storage, and the classics go on display."
Given this, it's no surprise that those seeking to bolster their own intellectual reputation stock their shelves with an eye to something other than pure entertainment. As interior designer to the rich and famous (previous clients include the Rooneys and Status Quo's Rick Parfitt), Laura McCree is skilled in the art of reputation-management-via-bookshelf: "I've created whole libraries before. Recently, I did the house of a client who wanted to look like he read a lot. I stocked a library which stretched over two floors."
But it's not just a matter of which books we display that's interesting – how we choose to do so has become an equal point of fascination. "They can almost sculptural in that they offer a physical presence," explains Hall. "It's not just about stacking them on a bookcase, it's how you stack them. I've seen books arranged by colour, stacked on top of each other. Once I saw a load of coffee-table books piled up to become a coffee table in themselves." Recently one national newspaper went so far as to create a Flickr group on their website, inviting readers to upload pictures of their bookshelves for everyone to see. The results ranged from the mundane (untidy paperbacks spilling out of Ikea shelves) to the highly artistic. If nothing else, they confirmed our enduring love affair with the prominently-displayed book.
Curiously, this whole phenomenon – the whole wearing one's personality on our bookshelves – is, in fact, a rather modern one. "It wasn't really until the paperback explosion of the 20th century that books became widely available," explains George Johnson, owner of Lady Kentmores antiques in Callander, Scotland. "The Victorians had been great book collectors – it was very much in keeping with the ethos of the era – but it was an expensive pursuit. To have a library was a sign of status." When Penguin launched its run of ten titles in 1935, the possibility of buying – and displaying – books opened to the masses. In the late 1980s Ikea arrived on the scene, offering cheap bookshelves which promised a stylish way to store books without costing the earth. Ever since, we've been hooked.
"Books define a space," reflects Abigail Hall. "If you have some books and a comfy chair, you have immediately created an area." McCree agrees – books, as she puts it, are an "interactive display tool." It's a trick of which countless hotels, cafés and Harley Street surgeries are only too aware.
Placing a few carefully-chosen books atop coffee tables is the oldest trick in the, well, book. Indeed Johnson himself has repeatedly been drafted in to advise clients on which titles to place where. "Hotels are one of the great buyers. It's about creating an ambiance. No one actually reads the content"
Perhaps, then, the future of books lies in this. With more and more being bought in digital format, the first casualties of the tangible variety are likely to be the beach-read paperbacks – the ones that, if you invite Hall around, would be relegated to the garage anyway. But given the uses to which we put our other tomes – whether they're deployed to show-off, look pretty, or create an atmosphere – the odds of them hanging around look good.
"Already, you can see signs of the book industry moving in that direction," notes Hall. "You can buy books in design shops specifically for that purpose. Even novels are getting a makeover: books by authors like Terry Pratchett were always very striking, and other titles are getting similar treatment." As for vintage books, the future – like that of vintage vinyl – looks positively rosy; one recent sale saw an illustrated copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America sell for a record £7.3m. "The love for great work is still there," says Johnson of this. "An eReader is all right sometimes – but there's nothing like the real thing."