Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review: Bookshelf

It's fitting that the first thing I thought when I picked up Alex Johnson's lovely new book Bookshelf was that its perfect 7 inch square shape would make an odd fit on a bookshelf, being both shorter and wider than the most common book sizes.

Not that it would matter in my house, of course. My bookshelves have long been overwhelmed and are stacked every which way, augmented by floor stacks and tote bags full of advance readers copies. Here is what the typical bookcases look like in the Bookstore Cat's home:

With my books so clearly out of control, it was with a mixture of lust and bemusement that I perused Bookshelf and its over 250 pages of photographs. The bookshelves, bookcases, book displayers and book brandishers featured here are for the most part works of art, and in many instances incapable of taming an overabundant collection.

Johnson wryly acknowledges up front this tension between design and practicality, with two dueling quotes, the first from Seneca on the copyright page, the second from Samuel Pepys to kick off the book's introduction. Seneca argues for moderation:

A multitude of books confuses the mind. Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read.

Pepys, on the other hand, give voice to the creeping despair many of us know all too well:

Up, and to my chamber doing several things there of moment, and then comes Sympson, the Joyner; and he and I with great pains contriving presses to put my books up in: they now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs...

When thinking about taming an expanding book collection, most people think of the typical library model, rows of straight parallel shelves. Most of the shelves in this book break that model completely. Indeed, many of the designs strike me as dangerous to anyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder: shelves that twist and curve and teeter at odd angles will, when filled with books, wreak havoc with any orderly linear concept of book storage.

Two off-kilter designs proclaim their intent in their very names: 'Untamed Chaos' consists of "nine identically sized boxes, stacked and angled in chaotic fusion" (see it HERE), while 'Broken Shelves' breaks each shelf into two parts, each sagging down at odd angles (see it HERE, about halfway down the page). These off-kilter shelves often rely on the weight of the books themselves to make the displays work, which can make extracting the volume you desire a frustrating game of Jenga or Pick-Up Sticks.

Indeed, calling some of them 'bookshelves' at all may be a misnomer; given that so many of them use such book-unfriendly shapes as circles, ovals, kidneys, triangles, and polygons of the most outlandish design. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as such designs force the intermingling of books with other objects.

A lot of people out there probably are less interested in making a philosophical statement how the written word should be integrated with rather than segregated from other objects in our lives, and more interested in getting their damn piles of books under control. The choices presented in Bookshelf narrow considerably for those with vast collections and/or limited space, but there are some good choices.

The Ledge (see it HERE) is gorgeous, and even more striking if more than one are used. Tetrad (see it HERE) is equally striking, with it's colorful Mondrianesque pattern. If you're just starting out in acquiring books, the ingenious Rek Bookcase is just the ticket. It's "interlocking zigzag elements slide in and out," meaning you can pull one section open just enough to hold the only book you own, of you can slide it open to its full six feet and display dozens of volumes. Perhaps the most intriguing is the Zig Zag (see it HERE), as the unique shape of these units allow multiples to be set linearly, in a corner, or even four backing onto one another for a columnar bookcase.

Another excellent solution to book storage found throughout this book are bookcases integrated into furniture. The Bibliochaise and the Tatik both incorporate into comfy armchairs slots for dozens of books (you may have to click and scroll a bit on these uber-groovily-designed websites to find the chairs). Having a chair with dozens of books incorporated into it is the reader's version of the television remote: you don't have to get up to change the story. The Big Wheel doesn't look quite as comfortable, but it looks like a lot of fun: a ten foot wooden donut wheel with the books stored around the circumference. You can lounge in the middle, or get in and roll it along by walking (assuming you live in a huge loft or out on the street, that is.)

But the bookcase chair that most adheres to human nature would have to be the Lost in Sofa, a plush upholstered armchair of five-inch cubes, each with deep cracks between them, which, as author Alex Johnson puts it, "aims to make the cracks between cushions useful, rather than simply a limbo for loose change and lost keys." I imagine if I owned this 'bookcase,' I would have it porcupined with dozens of books in no time.

For the most part, Bookshelf doesn't aim to solve the problem of storing a multitude of books. The bookcases displayed here are works of art, and many of them are meant to display books as objects of beauty as well. As Johnson writes:

The restricted capacity of some shelves, however, can be a virtue. Those that offer little more than a ledge or cranny are perfect places to display much-loved volumes. They also present the chance for a statement to be made about the books they hold.

Johnson's section on single shelves is devoted to this idea, as the beautiful and often ingenious pieces are only designed to hold a handful of books. But, as he points out, "[t]he beauty of many of these shelves is that, while they work well individually, they are more eye-catching when arranged in groups (like books themselves.)" With these shelves arrayed in groups across a wall, a balance between beauty and practicality is possible to achieve.

The Bookstore Cat enjoyed this book very much and highly recommends it, but he would be remiss to not highlight one last bookcase: the Cat-Library from Belgian designer Corentin Dombrecht. This modular bookcase can be assembled with built-in cat stairs, either out in front, or hidden behind, between the bookcase and the wall. All I can say is MEOW!

NOTE: Bookshelf is based on the Bookshelf Blog maintained by Johnson since 2007 and still going strong. Check it out!

1 comment:

alex johnson said...

Many thanks for such a lovely review. I'm really glad you enjoyed it so much.