Living With Books, by Dominique Dupuich and Roland Beaufre, Thames and Hudson RRP£22.50
“Books,” Antony Powell famously wrote, “do furnish a room.” In an increasingly digital age, Living With Books is an extended argument in support of Powell, marshalling rich language and glossy pictures to the cause.
The chapters are divided by the professions of the featured book collectors – from journalists to artists and business people – which is a novel and interesting approach. The great strength of this book is its scope; everything from the homely kitchen bookshelf to aristocratic libraries is covered.
There are some marvellous sights to pore over: a circular, beamed library with sunlight glowing through a little wooden window high in a 16th-century tower, Sonya Rykiel’s sleek oak shelves against black walls holding old books and glassware, or the Chateau de Serrant with its Louis XIII panelling, ladders and family portraits, are really worth seeing. Those pages are, however, a glimpse of what a great treat the book could have been.
Dominique Dupuich’s text is peppered with clichés, and pretentious language that often leaves the meaning unclear. Artists, for example, are referred to without fail as “bohemian”, which becomes very repetitious, and at one point even as “fierce defenders of ‘creative disorder’”.
Dupuich divides wordsmiths into two types: one the “bohemian creative” and the other “the middle-class artist”, as though they were binary opposites. We are told that the “book collections of artists are formed in the image of their owners: by definition unclassifiable, almost elusive” and that bibliophiles more generally are “part of a secret fraternity that is both real and intangible”. It all sounds exotic and exciting, but what does it actually tell us? The definition of a book collector here seems to include anyone with a bookshelf, so are we all included in this real, intangible, “secret fraternity”?
“Lavish illustrations” are promised on the dust jacket. However, there are blank gaps on many picture pages, with small pictures bunched together for no apparent reason. There are also a number of pictures of unimaginative bookshelves that might have been left out; pictures of higgledy books on MDF shelving are perhaps more befitting of an Ikea catalogue than a chic coffee table book. The pictures, like the text, could have done with sterner editing.
Considering the potential of the premise of this book, it is a little disappointing. “Bibliophiles of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your iPads,” it is trying to say – but falls some way short in the delivery.