Using books as interior design? It’s a trend with a tale

<span>Between the covers: ‘Bookshelves full of novels don’t just point at an interior life lived richly, but at a way of living.’</span><span>Photograph: Fotografía de eLuVe/Getty Images</span>
Between the covers: ‘Bookshelves full of novels don’t just point at an interior life lived richly, but at a way of living.’Photograph: Fotografía de eLuVe/Getty Images

I remember this one assembly. I was seven, eight? And the headteacher was talking about what makes a book. I guess it must have been around whatever passed for World Book Day back then. No Harry Potter costumes for us in those days, no Elsa-from-Frozen (because-we-have-the-activity-book-actually), no, these were the days when we would take it in turns to read from the papyrus scroll, perhaps in a little pretend Shakespeare beard if our mums remembered to pluck the goat the night before.

But I remember Mr Bainbridge’s assembly as revelatory and sort of beautiful. He talked about the way imagination could blossom, then be corralled into words, and how these words could be lined up on a printing block, and there was something, I think, about growing a tree for its paper, and then, how this story was bound and protected by its cover, and how each of these little folders were impossibly precious. He inspired in me, back then, a kind of reverence for books. But lord, my admiration is nothing compared to the dislocated, swooning awe for the book as object that exists today.

“Bookshelf wealth” has been named 2024’s “first major design trend”. This is the new name for a home stacked with hundreds of carefully curated books and it is situated as the interior design version of fashion’s “quiet luxury”. Quiet luxury, you’ll remember, is the trend for normal people (us) trying to dress like the super-wealthy (them) and spending the equivalent of a car on a cardigan that we believe will help us pass as rich and give us access to a world that would otherwise treat us with disdain. In this context, books are valuable, but not for their ability to titillate, terrify, educate, no none of that – they are valuable for the way their presence communicates a particular kind of educated class.

Do the againsts perhaps resent the fors, for saying their quiet bits out loud?

Today, any discussion of book ownership will spark great wars. Whole identities are founded on the thing, it being more acceptable, in this climate, to post online the pile of books one has read this month than to walk through town singing, “I’m a very clever boy.” And this interiors trend is no different, with sides having rapidly formed. There are the lifestyle girlies, who appreciate the cosy aesthetic, and then there’s everyone else, some of whom have gone quite mad: the New York Times quotes one disgusted critic saying, “The day I ‘cultivate’ books instead of buying what I like to read is the day I’ll know I’ve truly failed as a human.”

I take no sides. Not me, not old Eva! But I do find it interesting that so many care so much. Care that some ladies on TikTok are besmirching their precious lit-er-a-ture by pointing out that a shelf of books adds colour and texture to a room, rather than, as is presumably correct, critiquing the prose inside them in a series of online essays? But both the fors and the againsts (the againsts being self-identified “readers”) share a reverence for books as objects that must be fought for and displayed, that act as identity markers, and signifiers for rich inner lives. Do the againsts resent the fors, for saying their quiet bits out loud? For acknowledging that a book is more than just the sum of its parts?

To me, the success of this trend says less about books today, which have been used as a kind of intellectual set-dressing for centuries; as long as books have existed, there has been a sad-eyed man or glamorous woman carrying one as an accessory to convey soul and status. It says, I think, more about a reality of deep insecurity, both in the rabid reaction from readers, who feel their identities are threatened by the use of books as design, and in the popularity of the trend itself.

The bookshelves full of novels don’t just point at an interior life lived richly, but at a way of living, in the kind of home where you won’t be evicted because the landlord wants to paint the bathroom and double the rent. These are shelves that speak of a kind of permanence: those drawn towards this aesthetic don’t just want to be seen as people who can read (decorators have long bought old books by the metre), but as people who have had the time and wealth to slowly build a home, full of things that have helped shape who they have gradually become.

Like quiet luxury, which worked to defang its fans and exposed our kinky relationship with the super rich, the appeal of bookshelf wealth and its ensuing outrage tells us something uncomfortable about our culture. About the upsettingly humble aspiration – to live safely among our precious stories – that led to its virality as a trend, in the power we place in books, how they signify class, and in the bitter ways we find ourselves when in opposition to others who, in this case, “get books wrong”.

And, a PS to parents of primary school children, who will wake soon, red and demented, asking WHY is there not a full Tom Gates costume in their wardrobe: World Book Day is just over a week away, and Burglar Bill wears a blue striped top, Wimpy Kid is just white T-shirt and jeans, and Sophie from The BFG wears a nightie, x.

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