While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”
A proud philistine, the man saw books as accessories, décor, objects that derived their value not from their contents but from their appearance. And he is hardly alone in thinking so. Recently actress and singer Ashley Tisdale made a similar admission on-camera during a tour of her newly renovated home for Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” series. Motioning toward her colorful bookshelves, Tisdale said, “These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in it a couple of days ago. I had my husband go to a bookstore, and I was like, ‘You need to get 400 books.’ Obviously my husband’s like, ‘We should be collecting books over time and putting them on our shelves.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no. Not when AD comes.’”
Twitter like lit up with comments: “The richness is just painful for people who can’t even afford new books.” And: “That’s so sad. It took me a few months to fill up my new shelves, all special and important to me. Not magazine worthy but I like it!” And: “Can you imagine being able to buy 400 books at once?”
There was, predictably, outrage over the outrage, including: “Are we mad at Ashley Tisdale for supporting bookstores? In this economy?” And: “The way people are criticizing Ashley Tisdale for…buying books?? Supporting authors and a bookstore??? Like who gives af if she reads them…” Finally Tisdale came to her own defense: “Let’s clear this up. There are some of my books from over the years in there but yea 36 shelves that hold 22 books I did not have and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just honest about it.”
Nikki Griffiths, writing for independent publisher Melvile House’s book blog MobyLives, tried to bring a little perspective to the squabble. “Is it really so terrible buying hundreds of books from an independent bookshop?” Griffiths asked. “Tisdale clearly did not realize she would unleash the wrath of the bookish community over her shelf confession… Plus let’s be honest, how many of us are jealous because we wish we had the money to splash out on 400 books?”
It turns out there are plenty of people who have that kind of money. Enter library curators, a new crop of professionals who, for a price, will fill clients’ shelves with books that reflect on their status, interests, or character—regardless of whether they’ve actually read them. Books are “a great way for people to accessorize,” Jenna Hipp told the New York Times Style Magazine. Hipp, described as “a 40-year-old mostly retired celebrity nail artist,” works with her husband Josh Spencer putting together libraries for people for a fee that can run to $200,000. Their clients, says Hipp, “care more about how it looks than about the actual books…. Clients will say to us, ‘I want people to think I’m about this. I want people to think I’m about that.’”
The fashion world has also recently adopted this books-as-accessories aesthetic. In the Times article, Nick Haramis explores how fashion houses have begun weaving books into their promotions, from runway shows to panel discussions to podcasts. At Dior’s 2022 fall menswear show, for instance, the runway consisted of a giant replica of the scroll of typing paper on which Jack Kerouac pounded out the original draft of On the Road. Etro recently sent each of its models onto the runway holding a small, nondescript book. Meanwhile, the supermodel Gigi Hadid trooped around Milan Fashion Week clutching a copy of Camus’s The Stranger. “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956,” Haramis writes, “but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.”
The power of books as “signifiers of taste and self-expression” has been inflated by the pandemic. Parsing the background bookshelves of attendees in Zoom events has become a cottage industry, exemplified by the Twitter account @BookcaseCredibility, which collates screenshots of celebrities’ bookshelf backdrops. It has more than 115,000 followers, proof that people have an abiding belief in the power of books to reveal character or an insatiable hunger for the hardware of celebrity. Or maybe a bit of both.
But this kerfuffle is not about the use—or misuse—of books as fashion accessories, home décor, or branding tools. Call me Pollyanna, but I don’t think that Ashley Tisdale and Dior and Gigi Hadid are trivializing books. They’re doing precisely the opposite: they’re reminding us of books’ outsize power to shape our perceptions of their owners. You want to understand someone? Peruse the contents of her medicine chest, her garbage can, and her bookshelf. One’s literary tastes can reveal not just aesthetic preferences but aspects of character. This is because of the investment books require—not only of money, but of time and psychic energy.
Even if Key West Guy or Ashley Tisdale hasn’t read any of the books on their shelves, those books say something about how they want the world to think about them—and that is a big part of who we are. That beautiful wall of unread books in Key West tells us that their owner values appearances over substance, form over content. (This aligns him with Oscar Wilde, a writer he has surely never read: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”) No crime there. At least he had a good sense of color and proportion. And as for the models clutching copies of trendy titles between runway shows, everyone from Oprah to Reese Witherspoon knows that celebrity sells books, and I’m all for anything that sells books. But I’ve got a problem with Gigi Hadid and her copy of The Stranger. I always figured her as more the Sartre type.