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Into It

Into It: What Your Bookshelf Says About You


Your bookshelf might not seem interesting at first glance, but it has a strange history that might surprise you.

Ever since books began phasing out scrolls in the 1st century AD, they've needed a place to rest.

During the first 1,400 years of the book's existence, people managed to arrange them in just about every conceivable way other than today's current format.

They've been packed away in large trunks. On shelves, they've been piled horizontally or with the spines up, down, or backwards.

Monks of the Middle Ages shared volumes by chaining them to desks or lecterns. But as the collections grew, space got tight. From this came vertical shelving. The spines faced the wall and the exposed edges were beautifully painted with colorful scenes.

The printing press necessitated substantial shelves. Each century saw more and more books. The costliest shelves from Sears at the end of the 19th century came with rods, from which curtains could hung to act as dust covers.

But today's home collections aren't just about protection, but projection. This personal display took hold in the 1930's after Edward Bernays, the so-called “father of spin,” was hired by publishers to raise book sales. His notion was simple: “Where there are bookshelves, there will be books.”

With a campaign he elevated the book's prestige, urging architects, contractors, and interior designers to get on board. And still, the bookshelf displays of our values or education or wealth or wordiness or whatever it is we've paid to present in print.