Tag Archives: Books as furniture

Books as furniture

Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker essay, “Books as Furniture,” pokes fun at luxury mail-order catalogues’ use of books as props for images of gentrified lives. Baker is far from alone in being mildly irked by books displayed and fetishized as status objects, divorced from actual reading. Simon Brett’s 2001 murder mystery, Death on the Downs, features a faux-rustic pub with an artful display of artefacts, “Wooden-shafted golf clubs and antiquated carpenters’ tools . . . Books were randomly scattered, without dust-jackets . . .Names like John Galsworthy, Warwick Deeping and E.R. Punshon gleamed in dull gold on their spines.” An array of objects “carefully selected to create an instant ambiance.”
While Baker and Brett both hint that the use of never-to-be-read books for purely decorative purposes, results from the waning cultural power of the book, it may be only their own critical reflex that belongs to recent times. Their Victorian forbears were less likely to be embarrassed by the phenomenon of books as interior decoration.
In contrast to their well-thumbed and annotated Golden Treasuries my grandparents’ small collection of books included some volumes whose soft red leather bindings functioned solely as decorative furniture. Displaying these books was a form of innocent cultural self-display –one that was approved for members of their class. John Bright, in the 1880s, had urged that the mere presence of books in artisans’ houses would “guard them from many temptations and many evils.” Sydney Smith’s view: “No furniture so charming as books” from earlier in the century is frequently quoted by modern bibliophiles. But Smith added the proviso “even if you never open them or read a single word.” In fact, not reading “a single word” of an impressive volume was sometimes touted as a virtue. A Fraser’s Magazine article in 1859 recommends that the best way to “reverence” Edward Gibbon was “not to read about him at all, but look at him from outside, in the bookcase, and think about how much there is within.”
In addition to the six volume Nature Book set, their shelves displayed a few other books valued exclusively for their bindings. Longfellow’s, Shelley’s, and Felicia Hemans’ poems, published around 1900 by Frederick Warne,Hemans cover were displayed but not, I think, much read. The Longfellow and Shelley volumes have long since vanished, but Felicia Hemans has somehow survived. The pages bear no marks or any evidence of reading—slightly surprising in view of her immense popularity with a large number of unsophisticated late Victorian readers with similar background to my grandparents.  Credited by Wordsworth with having given “so much innocent pleasure” to so many, he still considered Hemans good enough only for Americans “in the present state of their intellectual culture.” Despite her mass following, her works were out-of-print by the end of the First World War. She survived, until quite recently, solely as a figure of fun, represented in Saki’s short story “The Toys of Peace” as a “little lead figure . . .Mrs Hemans, the poetess” and as the butt of Noel Coward’s (1938) parody, “The Stately Homes of England.
But Felicia Hemans’ literary reputation would have been of no concern to my grandparents. Her poems, like their other books with leather bindings and gilt fore-edges, belonged in the class of what W.J. Loftie in his 1876 guide for homeowners, A Plea for Art in the House, called “ornamental books . . .whose binding is their chief feature.”

Frontispiece detail from W.J. Loftie: A Plea for Art at Home

Frontispiece detail from W.J. Loftie: A Plea for Art at Home

Leave a Comment

Filed under Social significance