The Subconscious Shelf

My old hometown had a restaurant with real books displayed on wall shelves around the small dining areas; the restaurant was appropriately named “The Library.”  I don’t remember the menu, but I remember the books – I dined with Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson looking over my shoulder.  When the new owner replaced the real books with a painted facade of books, I stopped going.  I could find better crab cakes somewhere else where the decor may not have books, but at least was real.

color-coded books

In her essay for the New York Times Book Review section – The Subconscious Shelf – Leah Price discusses the value of book displays and the deception of fakes.  Books can “serve as a utilitarian tool or a theatrical prop…”  – the interior designer’s selection of tomes that will enhance the decor, not necessarily the brain; the coffee table book that balances the artful display of ceramics.

Don’t be fooled by those worn and battered covers that seem to carry historic weight. Did you know the famous Strand bookstore in New York City will sell or rent leather-bound multivolume sets “to connote old money”?  And a company offers “book handling” for customers – selling books that has each volume “thoroughly handled”…

{Volumes will include} a suitable passage…to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet…to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each…the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets…volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter, or whiskey stains…

I have a few of those I can surrender – but I’ve actually read the books, which may reduce their value to buyers.   Avid readers who don’t have room for bookshelves are constantly gleaning their frugal space; others count on borrowing their books; and finally, the e-book precludes displays of content.

Price suggests that the books on display won’t tell as much about the reader as the reader’s references to the books…

“Shortly after the 2008 election, a bookstore in New York set out 50-odd books to which Barack Obama had alluded in memoirs, speeches, and interviews.  The resulting collection revealed more about {him} than did any number of other displays of books by and about him.”

It may be the books that are read but are not on the shelves that really expose the reader.  Are you among the many who are well-read – but with empty or sparse bookshelves?

Related Article:

Snooping in the Age of eBook

4 thoughts on “The Subconscious Shelf

  1. It’s hard to think of a ‘well-read’ person with empty shelves… I mean, one can borrow them, but if one loves to read, one is bound to want to own some treasured titles as well. And then as you said, there are eBooks. They are probably the best housekeeping devices these days, clearing our shelves to make way for real decorations. But for me, I’d rather be messy with books than neat with empty shelves.

    • Of course, one will always have those books that must be kept and even re-read. Alas, my days of having a wall of books – even a room devoted to books – is now reduced to piles on the floor and the corners of smaller space. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. There is a restaurant called The Traveller on Interstate 84 in Connecticut, just before you cross into Massachusetts. They have a second-hand bookstore in the basement and all around the restaurant are shelves of donated books. Each diner is invited to take a book. I do each time I eat there. The food is tolerable, but the books are better.

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