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A Book About Bookshelves To Put On Your Very Own Bookshelf

Tree Bookshelf: Designer Shawn Soh was inspired by childhood memories of sticking letters on tree branches.
From "Bookshelf"
Tree Bookshelf: Designer Shawn Soh was inspired by childhood memories of sticking letters on tree branches.

You may have read about the demise of the book. You know, the thing that has been around for more than a millennium — dead trees, covered in ink. A repository for the exchange of ideas, and stories — a place of sanctuary, solace and sometimes entertainment. Doomed.

I'm here to tell you: Not so fast. We don't know where the e-book revolution will take us, but we do know it is going to take awhile to completely eliminate books. We still love books. We love the way they look and feel and what the physical object tells us about our history and society. I love perusing a person's bookshelf. It reveals so much: biography, experience and interests.

Many people still prize books, possess them and want to show them off. Nothing illustrates this as well as the incredible effort that goes into designing the space to store your books.

Alex Johnson is part of the online team at Britain's Independent newspaper, and a few years ago he started a blog, Bookshelf, devoted entirely to how we store our books.

"This was an early moment when e-books and e-readers were becoming popular, and I felt like, in a very small way indeed, the blog helped to show that there was still considerable — indeed growing — interest in reading 'proper' books," Johnson says.

In his just-published book Bookshelf, he celebrates the creative responses to the challenge of book display. Bookshelf is a riot of ingenuity and creativity, featuring works by designers from around the world, who have interpreted and reinterpreted the humble bookshelf.

There are variations on the basic horizontal planks between vertical stabilizers; ingenious pieces of sculpture that house books; practical pieces of furniture; chairs or tables that double as book storage units. Something to suit every taste.

Gravity-defying designs include "Conceal," which gives stacks of books the look of floating unmoored on a wall; the ingenious "Z Shelf," where books are magically moored slightly a-kilter; and the rather astonishing "Cantilever Bookshelf," a supple arm made of steel, protruding from a concrete base, that bends to the weight of the books on top.

Johnson's personal favorites are the designs that integrate storage into furniture. He cites the "Bibliochaise" and "Lost in Sofa" as two examples. "They feel like mini book dens," he says, "which is a lovely sensation. It comes back to the idea of books providing a den or sanctuary. I don't think e-readers provide much of a sanctuary."

The bookshelves that Johnson has found add another dimension to the whole archaeology of books and their place in the home. The fact that so much creativity and thought has gone into thinking about a "home" for books shows that our love affair with books is far from over. "Books are part of who we are," says Johnson.

So how does Johnson himself store books?

"Ha, ha! Just as the cobbler's children have the shoddiest shoes, my bookshelves and bookcases are spectacularly dull and straightforward," he says. "Most of them are standard, horizontal wooden shelves painted white in the basement of the house where I work."

In addition to a few glass-fronted bookcases in the sitting room for the "smarter volumes," Johnson confesses to something that every book lover can identify with: "I'm afraid we also just have piles of them lying around the house. Like many families who read a lot, we don't really have enough space for them all."

Alex, there's a great book called Bookshelf. You should check it out; it might give you some creative storage ideas for all those books!

Madhulika Sikka is executive producer of NPR's Morning Edition.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Madhulika Sikka is Executive Editor for NPR News, a role she joined in January 2013. As Executive Editor, Sikka oversees all desks and reporters, and helps set the agenda for the entire News division.