Readers on what their bookcases reveal about their lives
By Siobhan Toman
It has held books upright in millions of rooms around the world for 30 years. As Ikea's Billy bookcase enters its fourth decade, why do we display our reading material rather than just store it away?
Billy is a behemoth of the bookcase world. Designed by only the fourth employee for Ikea, 41 million have been sold since 1979. The factory where the bookcases are made knocks out 15 Billys a minute; 3.1 million a year.
Many households in the UK have one of these no-frills, building-block style bookcases nestled in a corner somewhere, which means there are a lot of books sitting on its simple shelves.
But not every Billy owner will be paying upwards of £25 to fill the space with improving literature. CDs and DVDs will find a home there too.
The continued popularity of such a mass-produced piece of MDF has led to less hand-wringing from designers than you might expect. It's not Eames or G-Plan but it does what it says on the tin, according to interior design writer Leslie Geddes-Brown.
"It's nicely simple and good value. What's more, you can take it with you when you move, unlike built-in shelves," says Ms Geddes-Brown, author of Books Do Furnish a Room.
Its sheer plainness is what makes it so successful, says furniture designer Matthew Hilton. He says the Billy is one of the most developed yet anonymous furniture products ever.
"It is ubiquitous, modernist, industrial design taken to the ultimate conclusion."
It is meant to be easy to construct (if you're a dab hand with dowels and a diagram) and is thoroughly inoffensive to all but the most critical aesthete.
Above all, it is designed to be fit for purpose - supporting and displaying books. It's not about the finesse of the furniture - it's a means to an end. A bookcase is like a picture frame - the real design is about what you put on it.
'The first thing I see when I wake up' - Peter Sandico's bookcases
But why are we so keen to show off our books - necessitating all these shelves and swelling the already bursting coffers of Swedish furnishers? Books aren't essential - you don't need them to sit on or eat off (unless you are a student). If you want to read, or check a reference, there are libraries.
And all those bonnet busters by the likes of Jane Austen and George Elliot - they can be called up at the touch of a mouse thanks to the numerous websites which reproduce out-of-copyright books. It's not the same as curling up with a paperback - but how often do you really re-read the old classics?
When Penguin issued its first paperbacks in the 1930s, they were designed as an impulse purchase - for the same price of a packet of cigarettes. And no one keeps them after they are spent.
Books were immensely prestigious. Not only did they show how very learned you were but they were also very expensive
Surely books should be temporary, disposable items?
And yet, more than 500 years after the invention of the printing press, the importance and value of keeping books is showing no sign of waning. The internet was supposed to spell the end of the printed word - instead one of its earliest success stories was an online book shop, Amazon.
It's hard to escape the theory that there is an exhibitionist side to our bookcase obsession - it's about showing off how much you have read, or plan to read, or pretend to have read. You are subtly suggesting that you are the sort of person who keeps Finnegans Wake handy, for example, just in case you ever fancy dipping in for a quick, albeit incomprehensible, catch-up.
HOW TO ORGANISE A BOOKCASE?
Problem with alphabetical is forgetting the author or title
Organise by subject, like gardening, cooking, novels
Tall books at the bottom
Paperbacks nearer top
Books you never read out of reach
Source: Leslie Geddes-Brown
Ever since manuscripts were first bound, books have had a hallowed air.
"Books were immensely prestigious," says Ms Geddes-Brown. "Not only did they show how very learned you were - you could read - but they were also very expensive. At one throw, you proved your intellectual and monetary value."
Peter Sandico is a firm believer in books as an extension of the self. A book blogger, who is collecting photos of readers' shelves in his "bookcase project", he says the magic of book display is the ease with which they can be manipulated to present a certain front.
"The books we choose to display in our bookcases say a lot as to how we want others to see us," says Mr Sandico. "People who want to appear to have serious or academic reading tastes display their classics, while keeping popular novels at the back of the bookcases."
The minimalist approach - bookcase, but no books
If you are more relaxed about the presentation of your shelves, they can give an insight into an owner's character, he says.
"Books somehow reflect an aspect of our personality that people don't easily see. I have a friend who has a reputation for being an ice queen, but when I went to her place, I noticed all these cheesy romantic novels in her bookcases."
There's also a magpie aspect to our bookcase love. Books, like anything that can be bought in quantity, appeal to our collecting, acquisitive, instinct. Classic novels are always being re-issued with new cover designs and in different boxed sets. Historical reference sets can be beautiful, leather bound and often extremely expensive.
They are meant to be looked at and admired, says Mr Sandico.
"Being a bibliophile myself, I like to take a peek at what other bibliophiles have in their shelves. It's the same thing as any collection - if you're into shoes, you'd get giddy looking at other people's shoe collection. With a book collection, there's always something surprising to see. You never know what's tucked in the shelves."
Is bookcase wallpaper better than the real thing?
When bookshelves aren't giving away our deepest secrets or providing browsing or boasting opportunities, they can be decor essentials in their own right, says Ms Geddes-Brown. In fact, bookcases occasionally have nothing at all to do with reading.
"People definitely buy books to fill up bookcases; sometimes they cover up the bindings to get an overall, supposedly elegant, effect. And interior designers sometimes order books by the metre to fill up a library, if there is one in the house."
But don't despair if you don't have your own interior designer styling your shelves. If you long for the library look but don't have the necessary number of novels, there are companies who make fake books to fill the gaps (in your shelves if not your knowledge).
There are even ranges of "bookcase" wallpaper, which recreate the well-stocked effect for a fraction of the effort. Although, as Ms Geddes-Brown points out, "the repetition of the same books does give the game away".
For many of us, of course, the problem can be more about being book-rich, shelf-poor.
When this occurs and the charity shop rejects a box of your well-thumbed tomes, it might be comforting to know that you can get a "height extender" for the ubiquitous Billy.
I recently resorted to it - but then I keep two copies of Finnegans Wake, just in case visitors miss the first one.
Here is a selection of your comments.
I only ever buy books by authors I enjoy. Maybe a literary snob might recoil in horror at my countless bookshelves of mystery thrillers, novels by Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin and Mangas but I had fun reading every one of my books and I've read most of them several times. Who with a bookshelf only populated by "classics" can claim that? Only a few of the supposed 'classics' truly are. Oll Lewis, Woolsery, UK
Oh dear I have really just took a good look at my very neglected bookcases - full of books piled up on top of each other, drawing material, ornaments and knick-knacks and my dead cat's ashes. I even have a sumo wrestler stress ball. Perhaps I am just a hoarder, but to me, these cases speak my language. Overcrowded and chaotic. Vera Kelly, Islington London
Shortly after moving into a new flat with a downstairs "Billy" and an upstairs built-in bookshelf. I noticed my partner moving my sci-fi and fantasy novels upstairs and moving his Proust collection downstairs to impress visitors. Needless to say, we are no longer a couple! Marianna, London
Top Tip: A set of bookcases built on to or placed tight against an exterior wall makes for excellent insulation. Simon Mallett, Maidstone, Kent
Was told that with his election as Pope, Benedict XVI remarked once after his 30,000 book collection was moved from his modest apartment to the Vatican, he felt like his "good friends" had finally arrived. Tom, Warrenpoint
A long time ago, I read that as long as a house has books on the shelves and art on the walls, it's a home. That counsel has served me pretty well. But Ayn Rand is always a deal-breaker. Whenever I visit someone's home for the first time, I scan the bookcases. If I see any Rand, I glance anxiously at my watch, and announce that I'd almost forgotten that I was expected elsewhere and really, really must be going. JR, Brooklyn, USA
I have three different book cases spread over the house. In my living room I have a 6 foot by 6 foot case holding all the novels that I have been collecting from childhood from my beloved Roald Dahl complete collection to my trashy Stephen King horror novels and my collection of classics like 1984 and my wife's true life novels and loads of play scripts. In the Kitchen I have two small shelves with my cookery books on then, and my dining room is lined with shelves holding all my comic books (over 30000), graphic novels (over 500) and Star Wars novels (I'm a mega nerd). I keep the books in order by genre and the comics in numerical order. I love my books and probably spend too much money on them but when you hear guests remark on how lovely the cases are and how nice they look full of books it justifies the expense and having a varied collection always leads to interesting conversations and gives you a chance to introduce your friend to books they may have not read or even heard about. Ciaran, Belfast
I try and leave my books arranged in the order I read them. My bookshelves have now taken on diary-like qualities for me - I can look over them and remember where I was, who I was going out with, or what frame of mind I was in when I read certain books. A book collection is definitely an extension of self - the kind of book you pick up in a bookshop says a lot about you! Laurie, London
As a family we have lots of books (many in Billy bookcases!) and they are NOT on shelves for display, they are there so that we can easily find interesting reading matter. I read and re-read books, many have been read seven or eight times and will be again. Most days all four of us sit at dinner with a book next to our plates - our worst family bad habit! Helen, Nottingham, UK
I feel there is something inherently wrong about throwing away a book, to me throwing away a book is tantamount to burning it. Ben, Rickmansworth
The article carries an implication that storing books in a bookcase (rather than "just storing it away") is an affectation. It is not. Books may need to be referred to at any time following a discussion, article in a newspaper on TV or the radio. The obvious solution to the need for easy access is to have them conveniently stored, spine visible. Philip Smith, Stockport
I own a set of book shelves. It's in my bedroom. As a result no one sees it but my wife and I. So why display them? For us. It reminds us of what books we have and invites us to consider reading them. After all, what's the point in a book if you don't read it? And it may be a case of out-of-sight-out-of-mind. And in the event of an impulse read it's right there to hand. But then I work in a Library and believe books should be accessible. Luke Cranenburgh, London
I checked - I have 37 meters of bookshelf (all completely full!) in my flat Harry Andrews, Edinburgh
Of course serious bibliophiles use proper wall-mounted shelves. If you have lots of books you need to consider floor loadings when using bookcases. Mind you I do know of one couple who have the proper sliding book-stacks in an annexe to the house to cope with their collection. Rupert Moss-Eccardt, Cambridge
I love books and have more books than bookshelves. When at the house of a friend I peruse their shelves, noting the books we have in common, the books they have that I don't and judging them on what is on their shelves. I am suspicious of people who don't have books and very wary of people that don't look at the books on my shelves. Kay, Toronto, Canada
Just reading your piece on book cases has made me realise i might have a book problem - I can't seem to stop buying them and as i only have a small flat I have run out of room for bookcases - at the moment I have three large and two small ones in my front room - but the books are piled three deep and I need at least another one - there really is something comforting about being surrounded by books - and mine are by no means intellectual - I have among the better tomes more trash than a rubbish tip - but books are books. Woody, Glasgow
I often buy books- usually finding an author that I like-read all that they have written and then move on to search for a new author. I give books to charity shops-but do keep books that have been particularly entertaining. My book cases contain a strange mixture including Enid Blyton (The Famous Five), Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, war poetry by Wilfred Owen -all reflecting different periods in my life. Reading a book, is for me the ultimate escapism-I love to immerse myself in another world. Television and computers will never replace the joy of reading a book J Murray, New Malden, Surrey
My bookcases are the even cheaper, but rugged, Ikea "Sten" real pine shelf system - sanded smooth. They currently overflow with nearly 2,000 books. Many of these are no longer available, or only at eye-watering prices. This week I bought three books online about Peter Scott's sculptor mother, Kathleen, which were published 1938, 1949/51, and 1995. The latter was offered on Amazon from £4.55 to £131.39! Chris JK, UK
I love books - always have and always will. I will read most anything put in front of me and admit that I peruse the bookshelves of other people. One of my fondest memories of childhood is the anticipation of seeing what "hidden" gem I could uncover in the local library and the smell of a library book still gives me a thrill. My bookcases have always been crammed and, as I'm a person who loves to revisit a good story, hold many a beloved and tattered novel. Kirsten, Scotland
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