December 16, 2019
Remember when you all got mad about books being shelved page-side-out? Well…bad news…
by Athena Bryan
Last May, an interior design tip to display books so their pages faced the room made it onto twitter.com and incited a day or two of genial outrage.
This followed another similar books-as-objects dust-up on the release of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show, wherein the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up suggested that books should be thrown out as a rule unless they were absolutely invaluable to the owner and sparked the trademarked joy that dictated her decluttering methodology.
The page-side-out debacle incited an easy and voluble response: “You morons. Books are made to be read. How dare you reduce the world into a beige nightmare of philistine Instagrammable optics.” The Kondo-wars led to a more heated debate, and it wasn’t clear if the most morally superior line finally fell the Keepers (who love books and insist on their right to live among their stacks) and the Trashers (who didn’t need their books to serve them as so many trophies to their intellectual edification).
What’s worse: treating books like a bowl of potpourri—just another element in your modular shelving unit? Or treating them like disposable tools—and rejecting in one sweeping decree the cluttered lifestyle that so many book people consider to be their right and duty?
A new phenomenon called a “book curator” has helpfully elided the either/or proposition and chimed in with a discomfiting “yes, and!”. In what is apparently a trend (or so realtor.com has it), book curators are being hired by the likes Gwyneth Paltrow to “[d]eclutter, or expand, organize, and all in all improve how your books look.”
In a passage that sits uncannily in the ears of any and all people who have decided to devote or otherwise ruin their lives the in service of the production and consumption of books, the article then gives a brief run-down of how to collect enough books to provide the nice “book” feeling to a room:
[N]ot owning enough means your shelves will look skimpy and bare—and a book curator can load you up. But you can do the same for a lot less: flea markets, thrift stores, and estate and garage sales are great book sources, say the pros.
[Darla] DeMorrow [of HeartWork Organizing] reports that some Habitat for Humanity ReStore locations stock books, and most libraries have an annual sale where you can pick up novels for pennies.
[Marty] Basher [of ModularClosets] suggests visiting the half-priced section in some bookstores, where new and used books are reduced in price, and shopping eBay and Amazon for other used tomes. You’ll easily have a shelf filled in no time.
Curation, in other words, appears to have little do with the content of the books, which is why buying at scale seems to be a major element in their trade. To actually consider the contents of the book would entail “mindful curation,” according to Basher. Should you choose to create “a collection that serves you and reflects your taste,” you may do so, “but don’t hold on to books because you think you should.”
Meanwhile DeMorrow suggests that if you have French books but cannot read in French, “you keep it because you want to be the kind of person who does learn it someday.”
Keep it. Toss it. Buy it. Use it. Leave it. Aspire to it. Eliminate it. Rearrange it. Sort it. It’s all good!
With that, we do believe Gwyneth Paltrow somehow ushered us into peak nihilism in the book-as-object debate. That lady has a way…
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.