Remember a few years ago when everyone was predicting that millennials would be the generation to get rid of print media? Well, despite people my age apparently delivering a fatal blow to mayonnaise, paper napkins, and Outback Steakhouse, studies have shown that millennials actually read quite a bit. In fact, many millennials like me purchase physical books at a higher rate than previous generations. We read more frequently too. As someone who is both a millennial and an avid reader, this is a really heartening trend. I am always comforted when I hear that we don’t just sit around Instagramming pictures of our avocado toast for hours at a time.
When I meet someone new, one of the first things I want to know is what they’re reading, or what they’ve read recently that they’ve liked. I also ask the same question of old friends I haven’t seen in a while, and the lady who works at the post office. I don’t necessarily judge people on their taste in books, but I am delighted when people are well-read or just interested in things.
It used to be that looking at someone’s bookshelf was a really great way to learn about them. Then, some insufferably twee Pinterester decided that organizing books by color was The Thing to do. I will admit, begrudgingly, that there are definite aesthetic benefits to this system. But if you’re like me and actually read the books you buy, organizing them this way is insipid. The titles get lost in a sea of monochrome, be it red, white, or bright yellow. I can see doing this with books that you’ve already read (and aren’t planning on reading again), but it still seems like kind of a waste of time. This is especially true when the alternative is just putting them the same direction in a shelf.
Unfortunately, the ‘organizing books by color’ trend has recently devolved into the ‘decorative books’ trend. I’m not sure if this is specifically a millennial thing, or if there are also a bunch of gen-Xers and boomers who troll Etsy looking for hardcovers in just the right shade of fuschia to match their accent wall.
If you go onto Etsy right now, I can guarantee you that people will be selling bundles of old hardcover books, grouped by color, for far more than they would be worth if sold for their original purpose. There are also people selling ‘decorative book covers’ so that all of your books can match. Some of these covers even feature the title of specific books. I always wonder if people who buy those covers actually match them up with the correct book. Or do you only find out that Megan has put a War and Peace cover on her copy of Spot’s First Walk while perusing through her bookcase of deceit?
Regardless of demographics, I consider people who buy decorative books to be the worst kind of liars. If I go into someone’s house and see large quantities of decorative books, I will immediately assume that that person is a phony. This, in turn, will send me spiraling into a Holden Caulfieldesque state of angst that is singularly unbecoming in a 29-year old woman.
By this point, there are probably some people thinking, “but books are decorative!” And yes, to an extent that’s true. We all do literally judge books by their covers. When I was a child of about eight, I picked up a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination mostly because of Harry Clarke’s illustrations. I’ve gotten to the point where I can usually look at the typography of a book’s title to determine if it’s for me. There is nothing wrong with books being aesthetically pleasing. And, even if the book isn’t particularly decorative in design, books are often decorative in function. I had an anthropology professor in college once talk about how books were a status symbol for the educated upper-middle class. Anecdotal evidence and narcissism aside, my professor was clearly referring to me. I keep books that are important to me, and my bookshelves are prominently displayed in my apartment. This is partially because I live in a shoebox, and partially because books are a great conversation starter.
As a person who does not like “small talk” or “most social interactions with people,” I have found that bookshelves are a great way to engage with my fellow humans when I am forced to do so. Even if the person hasn’t read every book they own, the accumulation of a lot of books generally indicates someone that is well-read, or, at least, has a desire to be well-read. I also share this desire. Since I am told that common ground is important for “positive interpersonal communication,” seeing a bookshelf at an event where I am forced to mingle is extremely helpful.
However, when a person’s entire bookshelf is full of color-coded, decorative books, that common ground is made into a horrific sort of farce. I cannot reasonably assume that this person has any real interest in books, aside from their aesthetic value. And there’s only so many conversations I can have that begin with, “I too am interested in groups of similarly colored rectangles,” before my cover is blown and I need to return to my lizard-person colony in the center of the earth.
And just to be clear, I’m not talking about coffee table books. Those are fine.