Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?

From The Millions:

While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”

A proud philistine, the man saw books as accessories, décor, objects that derived their value not from their contents but from their appearance. And he is hardly alone in thinking so. Recently actress and singer Ashley Tisdale made a similar admission on-camera during a tour of her newly renovated home for Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” series. Motioning toward her colorful bookshelves, Tisdale said, “These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in it a couple of days ago. I had my husband go to a bookstore, and I was like, ‘You need to get 400 books.’ Obviously my husband’s like, ‘We should be collecting books over time and putting them on our shelves.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no. Not when AD comes.’” 

Twitter like lit up with comments: “The richness is just painful for people who can’t even afford new books.” And: “That’s so sad. It took me a few months to fill up my new shelves, all special and important to me. Not magazine worthy but I like it!” And: “Can you imagine being able to buy 400 books at once?”

There was, predictably, outrage over the outrage, including: “Are we mad at Ashley Tisdale for supporting bookstores? In this economy?” And: “The way people are criticizing Ashley Tisdale for…buying books?? Supporting authors and a bookstore??? Like who gives af if she reads them…” Finally Tisdale came to her own defense: “Let’s clear this up. There are some of my books from over the years in there but yea 36 shelves that hold 22 books I did not have and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just honest about it.”

Nikki Griffiths, writing for independent publisher Melvile House’s book blog MobyLives, tried to bring a little perspective to the squabble. “Is it really so terrible buying hundreds of books from an independent bookshop?” Griffiths asked. “Tisdale clearly did not realize she would unleash the wrath of the bookish community over her shelf confession… Plus let’s be honest, how many of us are jealous because we wish we had the money to splash out on 400 books?”

While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”

A proud philistine, the man saw books as accessories, décor, objects that derived their value not from their contents but from their appearance. And he is hardly alone in thinking so. Recently actress and singer Ashley Tisdale made a similar admission on-camera during a tour of her newly renovated home for Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” series. Motioning toward her colorful bookshelves, Tisdale said, “These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in it a couple of days ago. I had my husband go to a bookstore, and I was like, ‘You need to get 400 books.’ Obviously my husband’s like, ‘We should be collecting books over time and putting them on our shelves.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no. Not when AD comes.’” 

Twitter like lit up with comments: “The richness is just painful for people who can’t even afford new books.” And: “That’s so sad. It took me a few months to fill up my new shelves, all special and important to me. Not magazine worthy but I like it!” And: “Can you imagine being able to buy 400 books at once?”

There was, predictably, outrage over the outrage, including: “Are we mad at Ashley Tisdale for supporting bookstores? In this economy?” And: “The way people are criticizing Ashley Tisdale for…buying books?? Supporting authors and a bookstore??? Like who gives af if she reads them…” Finally Tisdale came to her own defense: “Let’s clear this up. There are some of my books from over the years in there but yea 36 shelves that hold 22 books I did not have and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just honest about it.”

Nikki Griffiths, writing for independent publisher Melvile House’s book blog MobyLives, tried to bring a little perspective to the squabble. “Is it really so terrible buying hundreds of books from an independent bookshop?” Griffiths asked. “Tisdale clearly did not realize she would unleash the wrath of the bookish community over her shelf confession… Plus let’s be honest, how many of us are jealous because we wish we had the money to splash out on 400 books?”

It turns out there are plenty of people who have that kind of money. Enter library curators, a new crop of professionals who, for a price, will fill clients’ shelves with books that reflect on their status, interests, or character—regardless of whether they’ve actually read them. Books are “a great way for people to accessorize,” Jenna Hipp told the New York Times Style Magazine. Hipp, described as “a 40-year-old mostly retired celebrity nail artist,” works with her husband Josh Spencer putting together libraries for people for a fee that can run to $200,000. Their clients, says Hipp, “care more about how it looks than about the actual books…. Clients will say to us, ‘I want people to think I’m about this. I want people to think I’m about that.’”

The fashion world has also recently adopted this books-as-accessories aesthetic. In the Times article, Nick Haramis explores how fashion houses have begun weaving books into their promotions, from runway shows to panel discussions to podcasts. At Dior’s 2022 fall menswear show, for instance, the runway consisted of a giant replica of the scroll of typing paper on which Jack Kerouac pounded out the original draft of On the Road. Etro recently sent each of its models onto the runway holding a small, nondescript book. Meanwhile, the supermodel Gigi Hadid trooped around Milan Fashion Week clutching a copy of Camus’s The Stranger. “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956,” Haramis writes, “but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.”

Link to the rest at The Millions

The OP spurred PG to create a new category tag – First World Problems.

The thought that TPV needed such a tag has floated into and out of PG’s mind more than once during Covid and the Aftermath of Covid periods.

He’s not going to spend the time to go through the 2,287 previous posts to locate opportunities for retrospective use of First World Problems, so the history of FWP’s on the blog will continue to be elusive, but he plans to use the tag prospectively when he thinks an OP needs it.

And, yes, even if you live in the exurbs of Colona, you can still obtain books by the foot/yard/color, etc. See here, here and here for examples.

14 thoughts on “Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?”

  1. I fear a lot of those FWPs are going to be superceded by reality.
    The rest of the decade is going to bring to the fore the hierarchy of needs.

    For starters, housing shortage is going national: reduced housing construction since 2009 dropping to zero during the lockdowns and material shirtages and inflation since.

    Then, food: the US won’t face food shortage but major swaths of the world almost certainly will, putting pressure on prices. Shortage of fertilizer. In fact, I just saw a proposal for a tech to extract phosporus from sewage for fertilizer production. (Industrial composting, in effect.)

    Energy issues are here and will only get worse. Want a functional economy? Pick your option: fracking or nuclear. Solar? Batteries? Look where the raw materials come from. China dumping solar isn’t long for this world.

    And, of course, dead tree pulp is already getting expensive and outsourcing batch printing to China is near the top of chinese business to go away. (Energy intensive and China is looking at energy issues of biblical proportions.)

    While the US navel gazes in tbe Identity wars and book as decoration, the world is changing overnight. The term is: sea change.

    Interesting times aren’t coming, they’re here.

    So yes, books as decor? Whatever.

  2. It boggles my mind why someone who uses books solely as decor would even WANT books as decor? It’s akin to a person who doesn’t drink having an extensive wine cellar and full bar. What’s the point? Fill your room with things that matter to you AND look pretty for Architectural Digest.
    FWP indeed.
    Feh, the world’s going to hell in a handbasket anyway so party on however you want.

    • It’s a way to look cultured and intelligent. “Look at all the books I have (and, presumably, have read).”

      And, I’ll be honest, if I go over to someone’s house I will look at their bookshelves and judge them accordingly. However, while I’ve never met someone who would hire someone to set up their library rather than come by it honestly, there’s a certain eclecticness to the latter that the curated kind just doesn’t have.

      However, the people such people are trying to impress usually aren’t actually readers themselves, so all they see is the amount of books, or the titles, and as a result the status gain attempt is usually successful.

      • A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.

        “What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.

        “About what?’

        He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.

        “About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.

        “The books?”

        He nodded.

        “Absolutely real – have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of face, they’re absolutely real. Pages and – Here! Lemme show you.”

        Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the book-cases and returned with Volume One of the Stoddard Lectures.

        “See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

        He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

  3. I have bigger problems that have caused marital strife. My wife hates dust covers and removed several of mine and threw them away once not realizing I wanted to keep them. I like keeping the dust cover because I want the info on there. It’s like keeping a record and throwing away the album cover. So, we have a decor vs. utilization disagreement. #FirstWorldProblems

  4. A local column about this story referenced this business

    https://www.juniperbooks.com/

    They will sell you a collection of books and customize their color to your exact shade selection – I believe they print custom dust covers, but I did not look closely enough to be sure.

Comments are closed.