The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie's/Bridgeman Images

The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie’s/Bridgeman Images

I love this picture, which can be seen to greater advantage at Aeon Essays.

No so sure about the article by Frank Furedi though. The leather-bound volumes he refers to, are not to my eye “beautifully produced”. Their design is rather flashy, the text is tight on the page, the cover material isn’t leather, it’s a plastic imitation leather. They are sewn though, and do have decent paper, a ribbon marker, stained edges, and printed ends. If you want to buy well-made books go for the Limited Editions Club volumes, Arion Press or the Folio Society. These B&N/Sterling volumes are just mass produced books designed to catch your eye if you are that unwary customer looking “to embellish your book collection” without spending a fortune. At $20 who’d be surprised at that? They also have a soft-covered version — basically exactly the same book without the boards on the hardback. At $10 a thick Jane Eyre‘s a decent buy. Maybe Mr Furedi was looking at a different series: I don’t think they could legitimately call these Leatherbound Classics. Still the writer’s ability to recognize a well-made book isn’t really the point. His piece is about the urge among some/many/all book readers to want to use their book collection to impress others.

This vice is of course widespread. We tend to locate our bookshelves in public rooms, though we could hide them away in bedrooms and other less open spaces. Of course the true book lover no doubt labors under the necessity of filling both public and private spaces: there are just too many of the damned things. But we all recognize the likelihood of visitors scanning our shelves, and drawing from what they see conclusions about our intellectual life. Which is fair enough: we all need to cut through the clutter and find topics of conversation which are likely to interest both us and our interlocutors. We probably all succumb more or less to the temptation to put our most impressive volumes in the most prominent position. Your reaction to a friend’s shelves can give away more than you want. A boss of mine, seeing my somewhat worn copy of Pound’s Personae in my dining room exclaimed “Oh. You collect first editions too!” Sorry, no: New Directions just keep on reprinting the book with the original jacket (and besides you don’t pay me enough — which I resisted adding).

Of course some bookshelves are there solely to impress. You can buy books by the foot to make your home look like it’s inhabited by a reader. At the other extreme, you might be a bibliophile/collector: and collectors are likely to regard their books as objects, not as things that should be lugged about and read. And this is fair enough: if you’ve paid $500 for a rare volume, you would be crazy to read it in the garden and risk forgetting it and leaving it out overnight. If my books were unique and valuable I’d want to keep them as safe and unused as possible. Not sure why we are perfectly happy for people to collect stuff like match boxes and cheese labels, but find some ambiguity in the collecting of books as objects. Snobbism is working in two directions here: we display our books to make everyone know that we read such stuff; and we object to people who don’t read the books that they display.

Of course we want people to read. But they should read because they enjoy it not because we think that they ought to. Edith Wharton’s words “To read is not a virtue; but to read well is an art, and an art that only the born reader can acquire” seem to me to be a bit over the top. I think that to read almost is a virtue, but like other virtues you can’t really go about insisting that people adhere to it. And to suggest that only we special people are qualified to read a book as it deserves to be read is élitist arrogant nonsense. Novels are written by authors and read by readers, and their effect results from an interaction between the two parties. Maybe Virginia Woolf’s reading of War and Peace is different than mine, but so what? Mine is mine, and is liable to be the only one available to me. Reading her reaction to the book can perhaps deepen my understanding. But her’s is not better than mine: it’s just different.