Are books suitable props?

The question has come up a lot this past year, as people are on screen from their home and office settings. Bookshelves are prominent behind many talking heads on TV, and make for popular Zoom backgrounds.

It’s not always a matter of people simply using their existing collection. Services exist to custom stock those shelves.

One in Maryland is called Books by the Foot, offered by a bookseller called Wonder Book. As Politico reported, Books by the Foot can provide a stack of titles by topic and volume. You want several yards of books about progressive politics? No problem. A few feet of art books? Done. A row of books whose spines add a particular dash of colours? You can order them in any hue.

In Boston, the antiquarian Brattle Book Shop, which has been around since 1825, pivoted last year to selling curated selections of books for background display. Customers typically order 2-8 shelves’ worth.

“People want to project an image of prestige and expertise,” says Ken Gloss, who runs the shop. “They are looking to show off intellectually, politically, and business-wise.”

Ugh. But at least those books have a chance of being skimmed. A blog on Penguin Random House Canada made available what they called “credibility bookshelves” for background use.

Some of the publisher’s staff took pictures of their own shelves and offered them for public use. Each shot is intended to convey a different image to co-workers or clients: the classics enthusiast, the fun lover, the hip reader who’s “dialed in to the current cultural zeitgeist”, etc.

In being particular about your book background, you’re supposedly sending clues about your personality or authority – read between the lines.

That’s too self-aware. And often not even genuine. This isn’t new. Trying to impress with books pre-dates our Zoom times.

A British survey found that 70% of books in the average bookcase are never opened. Some 40% of respondents admitted that certain works of literature were out just for display purposes, to make them look intellectual.

A quarter of people surveyed like to carry the “right” book with them outside the home, and almost half like guilty pleasure novels that they would never display for guests.

As an avid reader, I’m not a fan of using books as window dressing. Neither is Laurie Hertzel of the Star Tribune in Minnesota. In a column, she decried the trend of displaying books, especially if they’re unread, in such a calculated manner.

Her books, Hertzel says, are stacked any which way in every room of the house, messy, and a magnet for dust. She loves it like that.

“It seems to me that the beauty of books comes from the fact that the writers come in different shapes, sizes and colors, as well as mindsets, points of view, background and attitude,” writes Hertzel.

Shelves can reflect that smorgasbord of ideas. Hertzel understands that some people treat books as décor. Their beautiful shelves indeed make a statement.

“And that statement would be: ‘Do not touch these books. They are here for show,’” she says. “My books too make a statement. And I hope that statement is: ‘This is the home of a reader. Come browse and borrow.’”

Houzz, a site with home renovation and design ideas, posted a debate between two professional designers about using books for mere decoration. It was a passionate discussion.

One designer, Joanne Padvaiskas, said the idea of consciously buying books just to fill shelves is not only wasteful but shameful – “like cheating on the books”.

Books aren’t knick-knacks. They should earn a spot on a shelf. Padvaiskas liked how one client treasured her wall of well-loved titles: “They surround her like a warm blanket.”

Buying and arranging books just because the size and colour is right? Padvaiskas said that’s like telling the world the content of the book isn’t important, just the shell. “Doesn’t that seem to go against everything we try to teach our young people about humanity? It’s what’s inside that counts. Looks aren’t important. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Remember?”

Another designer, Gabi Platt, disagreed. She told Houzz that she has no issue using books as a decorating vehicle. Platt likened books to plants, aquarium fish and artwork as décor. Even if they’re never used? If a huge painting with stripes of colour is art, said Platt, why not a wall of colourful books?

To make her point, Houzz showed rooms whose shelves were just separate rows of green books, blue books, orange books, red books, etc. Vibrant, yes. But I’ll take books that are well read over ones that are just, well, red.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

January 27, 2020



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