By Jess Muller
As a bookworm who has centred my entire personality on my love of reading, one of the greatest joys in my life is decorating and redecorating my bookshelves. Yet it is always accompanied by a small amount of stress stemming from the strategic placement of my books. It is not always easy to decide which books make it onto the shelves of honour—those behind the glass door of my middle bookcase and the second-from-the-top shelves on either side. These are the spots that eyes are most drawn to, the books that guests are mostly likely to pick up and rifle through. They are the conversation starters, the ones most likely to be borrowed.
It is the mental labour that I put into organising my bookshelves that has me convinced that print publishing will continue to thrive. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, the experience of reading has been transformed by the growing popularity of audiobooks and digital books. With driving factors like the convenience of Kindles and environmental concerns pushing for paperless, there is concern that demand for print books will decline. While I acknowledge the value these new modes of reading have in their affordances for reading accessibility, I do not think digital books and audiobooks pose a threat to the existing market for print books.
Print books are an important form of cultural signalling, and a way of showcasing personality that is yet to be replicated in the digital world in any meaningful way. No friend of mine has ever picked through my Kindle library. I would even argue that readers who use digital platforms rely more heavily on this form of signalling. Social media personalities, such as BookTokers, Bookstagrammers and YouTube book reviewers often feature their own bookshelves in the background of the content they post. The Bookstagram aesthetic would not be achievable without the possession of physical books, particularly a cohesive collection.
Finding inspiration for unique bookshelf displays is no longer limited to seeing them at someone’s house or experimenting with your own collection. In the digital world, Instagram and Pinterest are the home of bookshelf trends. So, what do the bookshelves of these bookish social media personalities look like? Here are two examples I feel strongly about:
1. The rainbow bookshelf: The idea is a simple one, though somewhat difficult to execute: books are placed on the shelf according to colour. I’ve tried it. I didn’t love it. Sorting books with more than one colour on the spine stressed me out and I spent far too long trying to find the non-existent perfect placement for them. The separation of books that are a part of a series and the randomisation of genre left me feeling uncomfortable. After weeks of repeated tweaking and general discomfort, I reorganised them based on genre. But don’t take my failure as discouragement! There is something incredibly satisfying in a well-executed rainbow bookshelf that can bring warmth and colour to a room. If you can successfully colour coordinate a bookshelf, please know I applaud your creativity and I’d love to see the product of your efforts.
2. The backwards bookshelf: This trend has caused controversy in the online reader community. It involves people styling their bookshelves with the spines to the back of the shelf and the pages to the front. The idea is that it creates a neutral-toned aesthetic, inoffensive to the eye and suited to any home decor. This style puts less emphasis on the books’ contents and instead turns them into a part of a collection intended to create something visually appealing, showcasing personality in a different way. The books may not be a conversation starter (unless that conversation is an interrogation on the absurdity of having the books facing backwards), but cultural signalling still occurs. The signal I’m picking up is that owners of such bookshelves aren’t inclined to re-read their books or lend them out to friends and family, because how will they ever find the desired book?
Digital platforms such as Goodreads have tried to replicate the physical bookshelf experience by allowing users to create digital bookshelves sorted by personalised tags. Users also have the option of selecting which books they physically own. Book Limited is an app that similarly offers a digital bookshelf for your home library, but it has not gained much traction. I think for these platforms to be successful in their goals, their use needs to be more widespread. I have been on Goodreads for nine years now, but still only have 39 ‘friends’ because—let’s face it—having a Goodreads account is an experience limited to a small subcommunity of particularly ardent bookworms. How will I showcase my personality if there’s no audience?
Digital books may be the future, but nothing can replace the feeling of trawling through shelves and running your fingers over the spines of physical books, or the satisfaction of seeing a well-organised shelf. So, keep decorating your bookshelves in whatever way makes you happy and don’t forget to show them off on social media—we’re saving print publishing!
Jess Muller is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne, hoping to pursue a career in editing. She has a keen interest in middlebrow literature, trashy movies, and cats.