Or, “What Happens When You Try to Live in a Pottery Barn Catalog.”
I like catalog spreads. They’re designed to be visually appealing, even if a bunch of them wander into the territory of the blatantly freaking weird. Sometimes catalog trends make their way into real life like bizarro aspiration porn, and that’s not always a bad thing. I gotta draw the line when it comes to arranging books, though.
The way catalogs style bookshelves has infiltrated the regular populace like some kind of memetic brain parasite.
Books can be very beautiful; they lend an air of sophistication to a space, and a well-designed cover is a work of art in its own right. But can we please not with the spines-facing-in and all-of-the-books-arranged-by-color and the putting-books-on-ridiculous-and-impractical-shelves?
All of these design trends, be they ever so eye-catching, say one thing. Well, two things:
- “I don’t read any of these.”
- “… But I want to look like the kind of person who does!”
It’s more than a little reminiscent of a scene in The Great Gatsby. One of Gatsby’s guests marvels at his host’s library, only to discover that all of the books have uncut pages. It hammers home that Gatsby’s a fraud; he owns all of these fancy, expensive leather bound tomes, and hasn’t read a single damned one of them. They’re for appearance’s sake.
So much for being an Oxford man.
It’s very rare that this works as a visual style– books are things with a practical use. Unless you’re going to hit up Books By The Foot or begin scouring thrift stores and library sales for books based on their cover colors, you’re probably purchasing them by subject. This almost inevitably leads to a jumble of different sizes, colors, and widths that aren’t all that aesthetically appealing when arranged into a unit. Is there honestly anyone out there who would allow their reading habits to be dictated by the color and size of a book’s cover? Is there an untapped market for copies of Do-It-Yourself Coffins For Pets and People and If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer with twee dust jackets in primary colors?
Arranging books by color also makes it more difficult to work with the rest of your decor. Regardless of how else you’d like to decorate, you’re left with a rainbow palette that doesn’t necessarily mesh with a lot of interior styles. The more books there are, the more pronounced this is. Eventually you’re not determining how you want to decorate your space, your books are. Your wall is a rainbow now.
Some cover colors are more popular than others. It’s another situation where, unless you’re hitting up rummage sales to have a perfectly curated bookshelf with every color represented equally, you’re probably going to end up with a whole lot of one or two colors, a weak showing in a couple other colors, and a weird smattering of covers that don’t match anything.
Lastly, series of books aren’t necessarily uniformly colored. Arranging books by color may force you to make some very unintuitive organizational choices– do you leave the series together, in order, or do you break it apart to maintain the color-wheel look?
I don’t even know what to say about the “spines facing in” look. I mean, it might work as a visual style in catalogs, but catalogs aren’t real life. You can’t even see the titles that way. I know some people are able to memorize the color of their books’ covers, but what is there to memorize here? Size? The particular beige of the paper? It’s silly. It leaves pages exposed to dust and damage. It makes living rooms look like they were decorated by space aliens trying unsuccessfully to pass as humans. F-.
I love art. I love color. I love marrying form and function. I firmly believe that everyday objects can and should be beautiful and make you happy to use them. Books should be treated well and beautiful books should be displayed in a way that properly shows them off. I don’t think that rainbow shelves or turning the spines inward is it. There are better ways to coordinate and reduce the visual clutter created by a mismatched bookshelf, like making your own dust jackets. Read what you want, and forget trying to live up to some kind of bullshit catalog aesthetic created for a place nobody actually lives in.
Jay Gatsby bought books for show. Don’t be Jay Gatsby.