Shelfies: Would you put Margaret Atwood spine to spine with Martin Amis?
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In search of a shelfie for Instagram and Pinterest, Lisa Fleetwood spent time in lockdown trying to make her library of 1000 books look warm, cosy and picture perfect.
She tried arranging them by colour, which is popular on social media where the issue of whether to “rainbowtise” books is hot. “I tried colour coding, but I got a bit lost with it. I couldn’t find anything,” she said.
Lisa Fleetwood of Cranebrook is so passionate about books that she designed a custom library in her home.Credit:Wolter Peeters
There’s nothing new about shelfies, though. Sorting books by the colour of their leather or the gold of their spine dates back centuries, says Maggie Patton, the State Library of NSW’s rare book expert.
Ms Fleetwood, of Penrith in Sydney’s west, is a lifelong reader and writer who settled on sorting books by genre and size, with some cheating within categories to add colour where possible.
There’s a blood-red group of fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale sits near Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. A matching red wooden bird sits near Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things.
A shelf in Ms Fleetwood’s library is dedicated to books about dachshunds. An owner of three, she also wrote a travel memoir Destination Dachshund Three Months, Three Generations and Sixty Dachshunds.
A collection of Wonder Books in the State Library of NSW’s collection.Credit:State Library of NSW
Other book lovers start by sorting by size, and group larger books horizontally. Some create artful pyramids next to the bed or on the floor.
Sydney writer Lauren Martin said she also liked to think of which authors would like to sit together, and those who should be kept well apart.
Martin was inspired by the Australian-American author Geraldine Brooks who wrote that she liked to “arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party”.
“Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras,” Brooks said.
Brooks didn’t like to think of Martin Amis next to Jane Austen.
In contrast, actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s children’s playroom features books grouped by colour. It was popular on interior decorating show The Home Edit as a way to make a room feel lighter and less cluttered.
Penguin books grouped together are very popular on social media.Credit:State Library of NSW collection
A prolific reader, Cindy Larson of Pymble sorted her fiction “loosely by theme” – Indian writers, African authors, chick lit – and “then by author within that and non-fiction by general topic area. Never by colour.”
Ms Patton said among serious book lovers, colour coding books was a sign, “forget it – they’re just not interested in the books.”
Yet organising bookshelves today hardly compared to the challenges in the 18th century of arranging by leather type, lettering or golden lustre, she writes in the library’s online magazine.
Early collectors would buy unbound books, and then take them to a binder for bespoke covers in red, green or blue moroccan leathers.
Often they were embossed with gold stamps, coats of arms, and the spine of the book decorated with real gold leaf.
A well-designed spine was an opportunity for booksellers to promote publications; for binders to show off their skills; and for collectors to create the ultimate personal ‘shelfie’, Ms Patton wrote.
When books were covered in the same leather, the owners of grand Downton Abbey-style libraries faced the same challenge as the modern shelfie wannabe: how to find books?
Books of the same genre, such as philosophy, were placed in the same press (the name for a set of bookshelves). In a well-known 17th century library, the bust of a relevant famous person, such as philosopher Sophocles, was placed on the top. A big clue to the contents below.
Stuck at home in lockdown and on Zoom, a backdrop of books often provides a peak into the private lives of colleagues and public officials. Ms Patton uses a backdrop of her own library: showcasing groups of old leather books, her Penguin collection, and atlases, a special interest of hers.
Some sites offer virtual backgrounds featuring impressive bookshelves to Make You Look Smart. For top marks from the popular Twitter handle, @RoomRater, which rates zoom interviews by the background, avoid colour coding and rainbow order.
Despite some elitism around colour-coded shelfies, Ms Patton said attractive covers of books – such as the gold lettering on the spine of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light – attracted readers.
Ms Fleetwood said she often bought books based on the covers. “If a book is really pretty, I will buy even if I already have it.”
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