As more readers put down their books in favour of the more convenient eReaders, Alex Johnson, author of Bookshelf (and the blog it is based on) and founder of the hit blog Shedworking, explores the continued relevance and evolution of the bookshelf, and shows us his three favourite designs.
Over the last 20 years we have experienced a revolution in the way we store our knowledge. Yet while we can now shrink an entire personal library to an electronic device the size and weight of a single paperback, there has also been an explosion in the creativity behind the design of that most basic household item, the bookshelf. Bookshelves today are no longer just somewhere to store books. They are modern art, engineering experiments and, of course, status symbols.
For many readers, their bookshelves are nearly as important to them as their books. I remember the size and shape and smell of my childhood bookcases with as much fondness as I recall the Mumfie, Jennings, Tintin and pocket-sized Observer’s books that sat on them.
What bookcases and bookshelves provide – whether they are shaped like Mexican snakes, made of felt or hold books upside down (all of which can be found in the Bookshelf book) – is a welcoming habitat. Alberto Manguel’s portrayal of reading at home in The Library at Night (2007) is one of the most evocative descriptions of how a collection of books becomes more than a pile of papers, how even the very smell of his wooden shelves relaxes him. This is the library as emotional sanctuary.
Maybe this new renaissance in bookcase design is a last hurrah before books vanish into computers as music has done. Or could the increasingly impressive sales of e-books herald a new chapter in home decoration? With fewer books to be housed, perhaps readers will look for more exciting ways of storing their home libraries than a mere shelf, with the bookcase becoming closer to a trophy cabinet. The determination to save the book may also see people move towards treasuring their volumes in fitting surroundings. Although e-books are seen as a convenient alternative, the desire to own printed books remains strong for many, even among younger readers. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Penguin Group CEO John Mankinson made the distinction between the ‘book reader’ (who is as happy to read digital books as paper ones) and the ‘book owner’, who ‘wants to give, share and shelve books. They love the experience.’ It’s an experience that writer Nathan Schneider believes is central to his existence. In his 2010 article ‘The New Memory Theater’, Schneider’s concern is chiefly for what might happen if bookshelves disappear. Schneider regards his shelves as extensions of his body, and finds simply browsing them stimulates his mind and brings back memories.
In 1901, John Willis Clark wrote about the ‘ever-present need for more space to hold the invading hordes of books that represent the literature of to-day’ in his fascinating and groundbreaking study of library fixtures and fittings, The Care of Books. Over a century later we are still faced with the same, happy, problem. The bookshelf is in rude health.
Three of the best:
1. Bibliochaise. This was the bookcase that made me think about starting the Bookshelf blog which inspired the book. It seemed so elegant and ingenious that it made me start searching for other unusual designs. Designed by Giovanni Gennari and Alisée Matta it contains 5m of shelf space.
2. Ed Lewis’s ropebridge shelf. There are some incredibly complex and philosophical designs in the book but sometimes the simplest ones are just as appealing. Ed Lewis customised an Ekby Ståtlig shelf from Ikea and then put up instructions on how to do it.
3. Joe the Polar Bear. The book features bookshelves in the shape of many animals including cows, dogs, porcupines, elephants and humpback whales. But if I had the room in my house, Joe would be the first on my list.
Bookshelf is out now and priced at £14.95
Win a copy of this book and a mention on the author’s blog with our ‘Best Bookshelf’ competition! Open until 31st March, 2012.