Studio Max Senden


The State and Waste of Dutch Design

Collage of Trump reading to children in a school library.
Books, Shelves & Values

Books, Shelves & Values

A book is a curious thing. It's a "container" of highly organised information (text, images and so on) that is presented to its audience as a narrative experience. They are highly valued not only as a source of knowledge or as a reflection of their owner's identity, but also because they give their owner a level of prestige. Therefore it comes as no surprise books are often given a prominent place [of display] in their owner's space.

The concepts of "owning" a book, it reflecting the owner's "identity" and the owner gaining "prestige" (because of owning it) have long since intrigued me. Think of all the books that are standing on your shelves. Chances are you have not read every single one of them. There might even be some that you haven't even opened. Yet, all of us (sub)consciously use our bookshelves to convince guests, clients, loved ones and ourselves, that we are cultured men and women. Educated, accomplished and sophisticated in who we are and in what we do.

Objects of Vanity

However, this (sub)conscious action greatly devalues the concept of the book. It transforms them into objects of vanity. A good example is the ongoing trend amongst Chinese businessmen who buy books to sell themselves. Because [the quality of] content is of no importance to them they purchase books based on weight (i.e. "the heavier the better"). After all, as long as a shelf full of beautiful and important-looking books convinces the client of their [the business man's] professional status it does not matter what information the books contain. Another good example is that of designers who have multiple shelves packed with expensive and exquisite books. Although the majority of designers worship books with almost religious devotion they usually limit their adoration to their design (i.e. typography, composition, size, colour, paper and so on). Rarely do designers read a book that has not been designed by themselves. This renders books to visual curiosities and the job of the designer to that of "maker of pretty things". There are even designers who choose to vacuum-seal (copies of) their most precious books in order to ensure their quality "will remain forever".

A common counter-argument is that books should be considered as objects of art. However, to me that's too easy of an answer. It implies that books are the end product of craftsmanship and concept. Similar to a piece of jewellery or an sculpture (i.e. a piece of decoration to be displayed for one's ego). This counter-argument ignores the existence of the book's original purpose, its content and the quality thereof. Now, can a book be made into an object of art (and retain all of its values, including its content)? Yes, without a doubt. Should all books be considered objects of art? No, absolutely not, unless it was the intention of their creator(s).

Treasure & Dust

So, how do you value a book as its proud owner? Although the answer is different for everybody (one can argue the answers of the Chinese businessmen and the designers is just a valid as mine) my opinion is that the only way to truly value a book is by genuinely enjoying every aspect of it and treasuring it for what it means to you. To me the sign of a book that is truly valued by its owner is when I can see traces of wear and tear (i.e. a broken spine, writing on the pages, a coffee spill, etc). A valued book should never be allowed to remain in mint condition or to collect dust. It should be shoved in bags, taken everywhere in all weather, read numerous times from cover to cover and then only placed back on the shelf [to rest] with its brothers and sisters.

Undoubtably not every book will be of value to you. However, someone else might value it. Therefore give away the books that you don't care for, and treasure the ones you do. Don't be afraid to own an empty book shelf that needs to be filled once more, in stead fear the shelves that are stacked with unread books with prominent covers and pretty pictures. You might find yourself to be just as shallow as your book collection.

Image credit: Photocollage by Sarah MacKinnon and Richard Redditt