Coffee and a Books

By Jo Phillips

Your Complete Guide to Coffee Table Books

Coffee table books are popular, and they have been for a number of years. They act as conversation starters or entertainment, or simply decoration. You can get a coffee table book on most niches, and so, there is something for all interests and industries. These books are often oversized and usually in hardback. They are by and large non-fiction and rely heavily on images, either photographs or illustrations accompanied by small explanatory captions. They are the epitome of light reading in that there are often not very many words. Coffee table books have a longer and more interesting history than you would expect, with lots of different influences from class to consumerism. Below is a guide to coffee table books from their origins to their popularisation. Read on for more information.

The History of Coffee Table Books

The phenomenon of decorative books began in the late fifteen hundreds, with the first mention of them being in an essay by Michel de Montaigne – a French philosopher –  in 1580. He was annoyed by the idea of a book laying languishing as a decoration instead of being read and enjoyed. Then later, in 1759, a writer named Laurence stern referenced Montaigne’s essay and the irony of his comments as it would turn out that his essay itself became a display piece.

The coffee table book is then a sort of descendant of the idea of this ‘non-book’ book. Coffee table books first rose to the prominence that they still enjoy today in the 1960s when coffee tables and, by extension, coffee table books became more popular. But first, there are a number of elements that aided in the creation of coffee table books.

Books as Gifts

One such contribution to the origin of coffee tables books is the idea of giving books as gifts. The idea of giving the gift of words is an old one, but as Christmas specifically became more commercialised, this idea grew more popular. Books are now an incredibly popular gift choice. With this, decorative, more expensive books became more popular too. These more lavish books tend to be published around Christmas as that is when sales really boon.

Books as Decoration

While most people tend to ascribe a sole purpose to books: reading; however, most infants or early readers tend to lean towards books that aren’t for reading. It could be argued then that coffee table books are simply an adult version of these. Historically, only the rich or highly educated had access to books, and so for the lower classes, they were extremely hard to come by and often, they couldn’t read them anyway.

It was only natural then that books began to be seen as status symbols of sorts and people realised that they could use books to showcase their personalities and their esteem without having to ever open them. Fast forward then to the post-world war one era, printed media became far more accessible. Books were seen as both forms of entertainment and as things that could provide an impression to visitors.

Photo/Art Books

These were the first iteration of the coffee table books recognised today, and they began their publication in the 1800s. For the first time, technological advancements allowed for the reproduction of images into books, which was wholly unprecedented at the time. This was somewhat similar to art books, and really it simply gave people the opportunity to see things that they would never otherwise see.

Nowadays, people can make their own photo books. These are a sort of hybrid between a coffee table book and a photo album. Photobox offers a selection of customisable photo books that range in size and finish for those that want to make their own coffee table book or conversational piece.

How the Coffee Table Book Got its Name

Coffee tables themselves rose to prominence in the 60s when central heating became more popular, and furniture no longer had to be arranged around a fireplace. Instead, the tables were mass-produced and quickly found themselves in the majority of homes. During this time, living rooms became less formal and more activities began to be centred around coffee tables, such as playing games, socialising and reading. This then organically led to a bigger production of display books which then became known as coffee table books, and this name stuck.

How Popular are They?

Coffee table books remain popular more so as decorative pieces than ever before, with many interior designers seeing them as a necessity. They are still touted as vital for achieving the right look or feel within the home. One of the biggest pulls of coffee table books is their ability to make previously unreachable topics more accessible for the everyday person. They are a great way to learn or experience things that you would never be able to otherwise.

That being said, there is still some controversy around them, as some people do not feel that you can call them books. As they are often purely for decoration, the term coffee table book has been used derogatorily in the past, especially in book reviews, to disparage the book’s worth. Both book lovers and intellectuals have been said to resent this form of book as frivolous and pretentious.

In Conclusion

During the pandemic, more people spent more time inside than ever before; and so it could be argued that coffee table books have become more important than ever before for broadening peoples horizons. It could also be said that because people have spent more time at home than ever before, the interiors of the home are more important too. A lot of people chose to spend their lockdowns decorating, and a coffee table book could be just the thing to finish off your home nicely.

There is something for everyone, from fashion devotees to art lovers to those suffering from wanderlust and much more. As mentioned above, you could even make your own iteration of a coffee table book to display for your guests and visitors.

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