The spine of a house

Books, like bricks, are a basic element of architecture. I wasn’t quite aware of this until I viewed a couple of properties recently and was struck, and appalled, by the lack of books. No books. Not one. The otherwise impeccable interiors seemed painfully incomplete. Bereft.

At the exact moment that the book would seem to be in the greatest danger in its history, threatened by e-books and a proliferation of disposable gadgets, the book’s very old technology seems at its most attractive – and its most physical. E-readers may be able to convey content but they leave no physical trace. Once the machine is turned off or fails, the knowledge disappears. They are resolutely not a part of the architecture but rather of the increasingly messy landscape of stuff. Libraries and bookstacks have always been a physical and aesthetic manifestation of knowledge, of the world informed by reading and, consequently, a way of reading the inhabitant. There is more information to be gleaned about the occupant of a house from what is on the shelves than from the furniture or the food. Books, or the lack of them, form an almost perfect mirror of concerns and character.

As well as being a means of expression – whether conscious or unconscious – books serve another representational purpose. From the Renaissance and on through the Enlightenment and into a world in which books went from being precious, handmade treasures to affordable commodities, the library or the study lined with books was a cipher for an ordered reality, a defence against a real world outside that could be frighteningly unpredictable. Within their pages lay the answers, the knowledge to fend off an apparent lack of meaning in the universe. Yet, paradoxically, in their disorder, in the random systems we impose (or fail to impose) upon them, they can equally represent the impossibility of knowing. Walter Benjamin, the German thinker, in his beautiful essay “Unpacking my Library”, managed to reconcile these ideas while contemplating his unpacked books in a new apartment: “The chance, the fate that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

Georges Perec makes a similar point considering his shelves: “We would like to think that order and disorder are, in fact, the same word, denoting pure chance.” The library can also denote the end of time. To find someone’s library in a second-hand bookshop is extraordinarily moving, a document of a life abruptly ended at the moment acquisition stops. But it can be voluntary. There was Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, who built a private library in his submarine, 12,000 uniformly bound volumes submerged with him, the sum of all knowledge up to a point at which, for him, it all stopped, there would be nothing new.

A wall covered in spines, shelved from floor to ceiling, recognises the correspondence between bricks and books. It is the point at which knowledge becomes embedded in structure and the appearance is of books holding up the ceiling. The implication is that enlightenment, the journey towards the sky or the sublime, is available within these pages. It is a metaphor made clearer by the special pieces of furniture, the chairs and stools that ingeniously convert to become ladders or in the sliding steps that glide along the floor scanning the shelves. And just as bricks humanise the scale of even a vast wall by introducing an element of human scale – a solid unit designed to fit perfectly into the hand – so books define the space and give scale to even the largest wall. They are endlessly reproduced and faked in a game of trompe l’oeil in which their symbolic role alone is evoked. There are bookish wallpapers, there are rows of fake book spines, there are jib doors hidden among the bookshelves that open, just as books themselves do, to reveal another world and there are dealers who specialise in slightly worn, leather-spined books by the yard, not for reading but for recreating a country house effect, the impression of history and wisdom.

Just as bricks can be laid in a panoply of bonds, so books can be built into aesthetic systems. I am always a little annoyed when I see books ordered by the colour of the spine but it is inevitable we order them by size according to the heights of the shelves – a system that can do terrible things to the logic of what goes where but can also produce delightful serendipities. My oversized shelf sees Will Eisner next to The Cold War, Graphics for Signage between The Wonder Book of Inventions and Fairground Art. There are alphabetical and chronological possibilities, ordering by language and theme or, for the ambitious, the Dewey Decimal. Samuel Pepys abhorred irregularity and had little platform soles made of wood to place beneath shorter volumes so the whole row would reach the same height. But that order gives the reader the chance to become an architect, to build a personal world in which, almost certainly, only the user has the key to understanding the order, to travelling through the words.

And then there is the possibility that order breaks down completely. From an architectural point of view, this is paradoxically the moment of chaos when books become not a representation of structure but the structure itself. Piled up on the floor, on shelves, above shelves, on tables and chairs, blocking out windows until the room disappears. The ultimate architecture of books was built by Patrice Moore, a Bronx resident who was found, barely alive, in his single small room under an avalanche of books and papers into which he had carved a tiny corner in which to sleep. Moore recalls the urban legend that was Homer and Langley Collyer, similarly consumed within their own papers in a Harlem brownstone, their extraordinary lives commemorated and fictionalised in EL Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. To these New Yorkers, a world constructed of books and paper had become both heaven and hell, a self-constructed world of both escape and confinement. Homer became blind, inhabiting the trenches within the house like a mole. Jorge Luis Borges, too, went blind but saw a world of books as heaven. “I have always imagined,” he wrote “that paradise will be a kind of library”.

But it is Benjamin again, unpacking his books, “not yet touched by the mild boredom of order”, who writes most eloquently about the edifice constructed by the reader from words and how they will ultimately, and pleasurably, consume him. It is “not that they [the books] come alive in him”, he writes, it is he who comes alive in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

Book review: ‘Living With Books’

iPad options: historic cover-ups

It can be hard to be a bibliophile in a digital age, writes Olivia Williams. To ease the transition for traditionalists, the iPad now comes in the guise of the beloved book. Aesthetically pleasing and unobtrusive in its book-like jacket, the digital reader can seamlessly blend in with its paper predecessor, meaning that it will be difficult from now on to know when a book is a book, or when it is in fact a complete library.

BookBook, from Twelve South, £64.99,

iPad cover, Oberon Design, $130,

Book for iPad, Nedrelow $99,

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