I turn to the ‘Explore’ tab on the Instagram handle of Of B&B to see what’s trending in its world, and guess what it’s filled with? Photos after photos of books. Paperbacks paired with coffee. Cats curled up with their paws resting on the books. And more often than not, readers in all their vivid ways, sometimes showing us what they are reading to where they are reading it. I truly believe I could get lost for hours in simply scrolling through and checking out all the beautiful books, their artistically designed covers and have a soul-gratifying visual feast each day, every day, until the end of time.

A snapshot of our Instagram’s Explore section has us ogling all day long

So when I read Colin Horgan’s Why We Can’t Stop Instagramming Our Books, my mind began to race. Was this some kind of a new discovery coming from the lenses of bibliophiles who had realised that book photography can be a source of great content done repeatedly without it getting boring or old? Was this some kind of an obsession we were stuck with? Or were we, bookworms and book photographers, just vain snobs who wanted to impress the world with our high intellectual status?

Books are totems of intellectual status. Since their beginning, books have been a means of gaining a spiritual experience and have acted as a medium for self-discovery. In the ancient world, they had a more privileged status than they do today. Books were luxury items that lent their owners, often the wealthy ones, a certain cultural prestige. Just like we do today, in Ancient Rome the affluent ornamented their dining-rooms with a display of books. Book-cases built as high as the ceiling could be found in their libraries. While learning may have the objective of some, they were often a symbol of status, displays for show. Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher did not take too kindly to book collectors and libraries. In about 49 CE, he denounced them.

“Forty thousand books were burnt at Alexandria. I leave others to praise this splendid monument of royal opulence, as for example Livy, who regards it as ‘a noble work of royal taste and royal thoughtfulness.’ It was not taste, it was not thoughtfulness, it was learned extravagance—nay not even learned, for they had bought their books for the sake of show, not for the sake of learning—just as with many, who are ignorant even of the lowest branches of learning, books are not instruments of study, but ornaments of dining-rooms. Procure then as many books as will suffice for use; but not a single one for show. You will replay: ‘Outlay on such objects is preferable to extravagance on plate or paintings.’ Excess in all directions is bad. Why should you excuse a man who wishes to possess book-presses inlaid with arbor-vitae wood or ivory; who gathers together masses of authors either unknown or discredited; who yawns among his thousands of books; and who derives his chief delight from their edges and their tickets?”

Now, then, is the bibliophile’s affair with Instagram any different from what the Ancient Romans were doing? There is no denying the attraction one feels when looking at a book’s cover. Whether it’s those piercing eyes of the model on the cover we can’t take our eyes away from, or endorsements from famous people, or the blurb at the back, book covers encapsulate in a glance what to expect. At least they try to. No wonder the saying was born, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Not all that seems is going to be interesting. But is it easy to look away from the book’s skin? Reading a book takes a lot longer, a couple of hours at the very least, months if your book happens to be a tome. You only appreciate a book after you have had a chance to be with it at least for a couple of minutes. It takes time to absorb the words on the pages, get emotionally connected to the story and begin to like (or dislike) where the book takes you. Book covers, on the other hand, are an instant source of gratification. If the cover appears to be beautiful or striking or scandalising, that book wins the honour of making it into our hands, and hopefully, into our homes.

60 years on and Lolita still continues to be a challenge for designers trying to get the book cover to say it all. Which cover are you likely to look at and definitely end up purchasing the book?

Book jackets are designed for this very purpose. In fact, some covers are being designed keeping the social media in mind. It is to allow for an aesthetic appreciation of books, it’s the new way of allowing people to judge a book by its cover. The question I am pondering over is – is this just plain vanity, to show off the covers, without a care for the words within?

If the answer is yes, what about all the artful ways in we arrange our bookshelves, sometimes by genre, sometimes by jacket colours? As far back as the 1600s, Britain’s high society was enjoying books that had elaborately embroidered book covers. Is our tradition, our inheritance, our obsession with book covers nothing but our quiet way of saying, “I read, and therefore I am better?”

An embroidered book cover from 1635, Britain

The ecstatic love for books belongs to not just those who read, the bookworms, it is also something that bibliophiles, the collectors of books share. The symbol of reading can become (and perhaps is) greater than the act of reading itself. The possession of a library can become an end unto itself. Books becoming Instagram-worthy is new only in the sense of the photographs getting a new platform for display; the idea that books can act as artistic props is much, much older. It is fair to say that, the portrait artist of the bygone centuries was seduced by the symbolism of a book – it was both a spiritual and an intellectual symbol. Madame de Pompadour, the queen of portraits (if I can claim so), is a testament to this. Like her, many other wealthy, aristocratic individuals sought to capture their devotion to books through portraits that were painted to show them either deeply absorbed in reading something or in a casual nonchalant manner, lost in a faraway thought as if prompted by something interesting or insightful found in the pages of a book they held.

François Boucher, Portrait of Mme de Pompadour, 1756, Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Printed books have a certain allure, something that not even the ebooks, that were expected to take over the world of reading once, can beat. Paperbacks do go through a demise no doubt. All the unimaginatively designed ones probably get discarded. Perhaps they get loaned out or given away to local libraries. But there is no denying that they manage to have a greater emotional connection with a reader than ebooks do. Physical books don’t just give us stories. They give us a sense of place and time. There’s no knowing how one ebook is different from another. All ebooks feel and look the same. There is no “depth” to the book. Unless you look at the progress bar, you can’t gauge whether your pick is a short one or a long one. Ebooks aren’t even pages. They are just bits of data screen after screen after screen. When you open a new ebook in your e-reader, there’s no knowing where it will first take you. Perhaps the table of content opens up. Perhaps you are presented directly with Chapter 1. You may, in fact, never even see the design of the book cover. And this (along with several other reasons of course) is what makes an ebook unreal and unenjoyable for a purist.

Bookshelves, and by extension, book covers continue to symbolise high culture. Just like the once-upon-a-time portrait artist using books as a source of inspiration for his artwork, businesses are coming up with concepts of designing bookshelves to make them look, well, “Wow”. Books by the Foot is one such company that works with interior designers, theatre prop masters and even individuals in setting up books in ways that makes you want to take pictures. Repeatedly.

Whatever you may make of our obsession, there is no denying that the public display of a bibliophile’s most prized possessions is something that you would expect of any love affair. It is a source of delight, of inspiration, of pride.

Published by Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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6 Comments

  1. This is a super interesting look through the history of aesthetics + books! As for the bigger question, I think that it’s okay to appreciate book covers for their own sakes. Cover designers work hard to make beautiful covers that reflect the spirit of the book. It’s interesting that you chose to compare Lolita covers in particular, since there has been a lot of controversy over editions with covers with sexualized depictions of Lolita.

    Of course it’s a bad thing if people are using book collections to show off and make themselves seem better than others, but I don’t think most people, even if they collect for aesthetics rather than to read, do that kind of thing. They are mostly just indulging in a form of photography or interior decorating.

    I love that Seneca quote; it’s very interesting!

    Like

    1. Thank you for your thoughts on this Valerie. I agree with you. Book collectors and even hoarders (I’m one of them) collect books with the idea of not just reading them but also preserving them as physical proofs of what we have enjoyed. Book covers have always fascinated me. To be able to succinctly capture the essence of a book using just the space available on covers is indeed an art and I’m glad that photographers are using them as a source of creativity and interior decoration.

      Hope you enjoyed this piece!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so beautifully written and such an interesting topic. I find bookstagram to be an interesting place, especially when looking into aesthetics and themes. There is no denying that individuals who participate show off their books with such passion and creativity that it can be very inspiring.

    Like

    1. Thanks for writing in Rebcca. Exactly how I feel too! We bibliophiles have such a fun time arranging our books aestehtically or using them in photography, that they become a lot more than props. They are our treasures. I’m glad you liked this piece 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this post! They way you inspect our connection to book covers throughout history … so fascinating. I’ve thought a lot about this topic lately.
    And while yes, we can get a little shallow and admire all the beautiful covers, I think it’s jsut another layer in which we can appreciate books as an art form.
    Some book covers show very clearly how much thoughts, work and love for detail were put into them and I don’t see anything wrong with cherishing that work, too. (But then again, I might be biased because I’m a book hoarder and a sucker for a stunning cover xD )

    Like

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this post! I am guilty of being a book hoarder too and more often than not, I ogle at books that have beautiful or meaningful covers (and buying them). Thanks again for reading my views (I did get pretty engrossed while I was researching the fascinating history of book covers through the ages).

      Liked by 1 person

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