How to Decorate with Books.

I did something a little silly the other day. I bought some books. Fifty of them.

It was never my intention to buy fifty books. I just wanted to get the kids out of the house so that my wife could finish a project she was working on. Exclusive Books was having a pop-up warehouse sale. R10 a book. In other words, Exclusive Books was giving away books. So I gave the kids R50 each and hauled them off to Kramerville.

Then things became a bit of a blur. There were too many people there. And too many books. The sale rapidly degenerated into a feeding frenzy, and a red mist descended over my eyes. I am not admitting to anything, but there is a good chance I might have pulled out a significant proportion of a hipster’s beard in order to win an engaging little hardback about pirate economics, and if the police ask any questions about a little old lady getting punched in the kidneys, I know nothing. I wasn’t anywhere near her at the time. And I spotted that book about Proust’s overcoat first. Just saying.

It was a little busy. This was just the queue for the bathroom...

It was a little busy. This was just the queue for the bathroom…

The kids, being fast learners with a very poor grasp of basic arithmetic, fell prey to red mists of their own, and proceeded to make a mockery of their R50 limit. An hour later, we stepped out into the bright light of Heritage Day with three boxes of books and a vague feeling of shame.

Three boxes of books is a problem.


A few weeks ago, I became aware of something horrible. Just look at this!

This is not a bookshelf, it is an affront!

This is not a bookshelf, it is an affront!

Awful, isn’t it? There is simply no accounting for taste, is there?

No-one has ever accused me of being an aesthete. I dress mostly to avoid getting arrested for indecent exposure, and brush my hair because if I don’t, the various women in my life say unkind things to me. It goes without saying that I don’t keep up to date with the latest interior decorating trends. I’m still not entirely sure what colour mauve is, and I only found out what a sconce was when I knocked one off the wall and onto my wife’s head. I learnt some new Anglo-Saxon words at the same time. Being married to someone smarter than you is very educational.

But I digress. The point of all this is that I discovered a horrible interior decorating trend the other day. And it’s obviously been around for a while, because it seems to be everywhere:

I'm sorry you have to see this.

I’m sorry you have to see this.

It’s all a bit sad, really. These people are decorating their homes with books. And they are getting it very, very wrong.

Look at those pictures again. Now imagine the conversation that must have cropped up somewhere along the line:

Person 1:         “Darling, I’ve been thinking.”

Person 2:         “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. Can I get you an aspirin?”

Person 1:         “I’ll be fine. I’ve been thinking that we need to get some books.”

Person 2:         “Books?”

Person 1:         “Books.”

Person 2:         “I’ll get that aspirin…”

Person 1:         “I’m fine.”

Person 2:         “So what sort of books are you thinking we should get? Fiction? Popular science? A biography or two?”

Person 1:         “Yellow ones. I want about thirteen yellow books. And about eight red ones. Of various sizes. Pink ones, too. Do they make books in aquamarine?”

Person 2:         “I’m sure they do. What do these books need to be about?”

Person 1:         “Doesn’t matter. They are not for reading. They are like those umbrellas in the antique bucket next to the front door. If you or the children ever touch them, you will be punished.”

This is even worse.


Interior decorator:       “Right. Time to move on to the lounge. I was thinking of putting a “reading nook” into that open space next to the window.”

Person 2:                     “Why did you do that with your fingers?”

Interior decorator:       “Do what?”

Person 2:                     “That thing where you made little quotation marks in the air when you said “reading nook”.”

Interior decorator:       “I did nothing of the sort. Now, I was thinking of a plain white, ceiling length bookshelf, with a selection of books and perhaps an objet or t…”

Person 2:                     “Object?”

Interior decorator:       “Objet, darling, objet. An objet d’art. An objet or two and some…”

Person 2:                     “This is awesome! I love books! I’ve been collecting since I was a teenager. I’ve got all of my favourite novels, and we have picked up some nice coffee-table books on our travels. I’ve even got….”

Interior decorator:       “Wonderful, darling. You can pack them all into a cardboard box and store them out in the garage. You can look at them when you go out to visit the children. I’ll be getting you some nice off-white antique German tax-law books for the “reading nook”. They will….”

Person 2:                     “I’m sorry, what was that about the children?”

Interior decorator:      “Oh. I’ve been meaning to tell you. The children will be living in the garage from now on. Children are dirty and your whole house is going to be white. To match your antique German tax-law books. Don’t worry. We’ve installed a feeding hatch in the kitchen door, and are building them an outside toilet disguised as a Georgian gazebo. If they get too dirty you can hose them down in the driveway. Keep them away from the pool, though. The paving is all white…”

"They can come in on special occasions, like Christmas, but only if you wrap them in cling-wrap and make them breathe through a straw..."

“They can come in on special occasions, like Christmas, but only if you wrap them in cling-wrap and make them breathe through a straw…”

Yup. Those people have gone and bought themselves a bunch of books based on how well their spines match with the curtains. This may seem like a good idea at first. Books have an aura. Filling your house up with books tells people that you are smart. Sophisticated. Interesting.

It is not a good idea. The people we tend to want to impress with how smart, sophisticated and interesting we are tend to be smart, sophisticated and interesting people.

Which is where this interior decorating trend comes unstuck. Put a smart, sophisticated and interesting person in a room full of books, and sooner or later he or she is going to go over and pick one up to page through. This is a certainty, like the sun rising or your partner finding your secret stash of Romany creams.

This is when your guest is going to notice that you have spent several thousand rand stocking up a ceiling-length bookshelf with hundred-year-old tax-law journals. In German. So that people will think that you are smart, sophisticated and interesting.

Your smart, sophisticated and interesting guest is not going to think you are smart, sophisticated and interesting. In fact, as they return themselves bemusedly to their seats, your smart, sophisticated and interesting guest is probably going to be thinking to themselves that your eyes are a little closer together than they had originally thought, and that it might be prudent to start offering you assistance when you perform complicated tasks like pouring tea or inhaling.

The beauty of books lies inside them. A beautiful bookshelf is one where a child can lose themselves for hours in dusty old world record books and Christmas-gift Giles cartoon collections from before they were born, and tattered old Beano’s and yellowing Tintins. A beautiful bookshelf should have coffee table books about wonderful gardens in it. And bird books. And biographies of forgotten singers. And novels by obscure authors who have been dead for decades. And slightly off-colour joke books. And travel guides to countries that don’t exist anymore. And recipe books and sports books and books about hobbies that no-one has taken part in for thirty years. Macramé. Beautiful bookshelves should have books about macramé in them. And stamp collecting. A beautiful bookshelf should be a living history; an interactive exhibit dedicated to the enduring passions and passing interests of your family over a lifetime.

Beautiful bookshelves should not, under any circumstances, have books in them whose defining feature is that they are yellow. That’s just sad. Hollow. Empty. A shelf full of antique German tax-law journals is the literary equivalent of a garden that has been concreted over and covered with astroturf and plastic flowers. And those cellphone towers dressed up to look like palm trees.

Wow! Your garden looks just like Mauritius.

Wow! Your garden looks just like Mauritius.

And if you think I am being a tad dramatic with the “hollow” and “empty” talk, I’m not. I am being perfectly literal. Look;


Yup. That’s a thing. There are people out there who make a living tearing the spines off old books and sticking them to bits of wood so that other people can pretend to have books in their houses without having to do anything icky like have books in their houses. My blood runs cold when I think about what these people are doing for pets.

"I'll be back soon, honey. I'm just taking the dog out for a walk."

“I’ll be back soon, honey. I’m just taking the dog out for a walk.”

So how should you decorate with books? Easy. Just listen to me. Am I an interior decorator? I am not. But I did once read an interior decorating book I found below a mauve sconce, so I’m pretty much the same thing. And I have been a bookseller for a while. So I have a few books. Here’s how it’s done.

Step 1.             Buy yourself some bookshelves that are too small. I am not suggesting that you buy bookshelves that are too small to hold the books that you currently own. I am just informing you at the outset that if you are doing this properly, they will, at some point, be too small.

Step 2.             Sort your books into categories; fiction together, nature books together, children’s books together, and so on. You can even alphabetise them if you want to. This will ultimately prove to be a complete waste of time, but will, in the short term, give you a profound sense of achievement. Do not, however, sort them by colour, or we can’t be friends.

Step 3.             Pack them neatly onto your new shelves. Try, while keeping them in their categories, to pack the biggest, heaviest books on the lower shelves. This will anchor the bookshelf visually, drawing the eye upwards and making the room feel bigger.


No. No it will not. It will, however, anchor the bookshelf literally, making it less likely to topple over when your partner climbs up the front of it like a ladder to get at your secret stash of Romany creams.

Step 4.             Accumulate more books. You can get them at Exclusive Books. In Clearwater. Lull yourself into a false sense of security by keeping them in a large pile on your bedside table.

Step 5.             Now for the tricky part. Once the pile on your bedside table gets tall enough to maim a child if it topples over, it’s time to go and pack them onto your bookshelves. A sledgehammer and a can of WD40 will come in handy at this point. And it might be worth placing a small crowbar next to the shelf so that you can get your books out again.

Step 6.             Repeat step 4. To delay the inevitable, you can also build a small pile in the bathroom, which will come in handy since that is where most reading gets done these days anyway. Once the bathroom pile starts to totter like a late-stage Jenga game, you can start pushing books under your bed once you’re done with them. When they start popping out the other side it’s time to go back to your shelf.

Step 7.             Time to haul out the hammer and the WD40 again. Your shelves are not full. There is lots of wasted space above each orderly row of books. Fill it. You will also, if you bought the right sort of bookshelf, find little strips of unused space at the front of each shelf. Use this by balancing your thinnest books on it with the cover facing outward. Remember also that the amount of stuff you can balance on top of your bookshelf is limited only by the height of the ceiling. And gravity.


Step 8.             Repeat step 6. You can also save valuable space by leaving piles of books in your car and taking them inside as you need them.

Step 9.             The shelf might be full, but it still serves as a focal point for your books. Now is the time to start making neat piles on the floor in front of the bookshelf.

library 2

Step 10.           Repeat step 8. Remember that, while it is usually the done thing to keep your book collection neat and tidy, an exception is made for the book you are reading currently. You can leave that lying around anywhere. Use this to your advantage by reading up to thirty seven books at once.

Step 11.           Time to abandon your bookshelf. You can now start stacking your books along the bases of your walls. If anyone asks, tell them it’s a novelty skirting board. Remember to leave gaps so that you can get through doors and reach electricity points.


Step 12.           Repeat step 10. Carry a stack of books with you at all times when you are at home. If you never put them down, no-one can call them clutter. This might make sleeping a little awkward at first, and you’ll have to make some sort of arrangement with plastic bags at bath-time, but you will soon get used to it. And just think of the money you will be saving on gym membership fees. You’ll have biceps like a longshoreman…

Step 13.           I think things might be getting a little out of hand. Your only hope now is to start using your books to make furniture, or mazes for the children. Good luck.


I'm not making this up. these are both actual things.

I’m not making this up. these are both actual things.


Step 14.           Take your kids out for a fun little outing and come back with three boxes of books and an outstanding arrest warrant.

Step 15.           I got nothing. Help!


24 thoughts on “How to Decorate with Books.

  1. For decades I thought my parents had nothing but real books. I spent many, many hours gazing at the bookshelves, selecting books, taking them down & reading them. I can’t tell you how many times I passed over The History of Ancient Greece, but it must have been hundreds, if not thousands. About 35 years in, I finally took it down. Imagine my surprise when I found a 1960s sex manual within … and nothing about Greece atall.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Bravo! I like your thinking lol. Shallow and hollow, great descriptions of the trend with book decorating. To be honest I can’t say I’ve seen a book that is a certain colour, but then I buy books to read, not to look good. I haven’t reached the “store books in front of the bookcase” yet, but my bookcase has every nook and cranny almost filled, so maybe the chair could happen?? Thanks for a great read 🙂


    • It’s a gradual process. You put one book on the floor in order to find space for it on the shelf when you get a moment. A week later, you put one on top of it, and remind yourself you need to sort out your shelves. One more book and you’ve got a pile, and it becomes a permanent fixture.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m currently at Step 7. When I had a job with an office, I used to store some of my books at work, but now I work from home that’s not an option. I love working freelance (I’m a scientific editor) but if I get any more books I might just have to get a job to open up the possibility of more shelves in a room that isn’t in my house.


  4. I think you are missing out on a sales opportunity. I think that you should actively be pushing colour coordinated books to customers so that they can cut off the covers, create secret hiding places for really good books that the rest of your family want to get their hands on before you get a chance to read them and as a great hiding place for your Romany creams. A case of having your colour coordinated books AND satisfying your inner book nerd (and Romany cream lust) at the same time. Twice the books, twice the fun.


    • I like where you are going with this. We used to sell clear plastic covers to stop book-club books from getting damaged. We can do the same thing with coloured covers so that people could do their strange little decorating things AND get books that people might actually want to read.
      Look at that! I’ve added a tiny little bit onto your idea so that I can steal it and claim the credit for it with a clear conscience.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed this one. I will admit to buying books with decorating in mind. I buy old books simply because they’re old. I have books so old they don’t have ISBNs or publication dates on the first page. No German tax law, though.

    I also prefer, when buying series, to buy books from the same edition. It warms my heart to have an entire shelf of matching covers (arranged chronologically in order of publication) looking back at me. It also makes it much easier to stack more books on top of them in the space between the books and the next shelf. The strategy has met with limited success though. My Terry Pratchett’s, for example, span five different editions from at least three different publishers, including three hardcovers I picked up second-hand that tower above the rest making top-stacking really awkward. (And while it would make sense to move the offending titles to one end to better facilitate top-stacking in the rest of the shelf, that would move the books out of order. It’s so much fun to be me.)

    It is a good thing I only find out about this warehouse sale now, or I would have driven to the City of Gold last week and filled up my bakkie – cheap books are irresistible.

    And for those of you who don’t live in SA, they really stack books on the floor in front of the shelves in Exclusive Books. When the wife and I visit one of their shops a large amount of time is spent sitting cross-legged on the floor browsing through those stacks and to heck with any other customers – if they can’t realise this is the correct way to browse for books it’s their problem 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s nothing wrong with making your book collection look beautiful, or with buying beautiful editions of books you want. As long as the books you are buying are actually readable.
      As for sitting on the floor, of course that’s the proper way to do things. How else are you supposed to look at the books on the bottom shelves?

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Whoa! Funny, although I was right with you until they turned into baseboards …
    We were looking at a house and a piece of property we’re interested in a couple of days ago and on the way home I noted my astonishment that they had no books, not even a bookshelf with color coordinated ones.


  7. One of my regrets is books I have previously had and given away in the foolish idea of “creating space”. Hawking or somebody else thoughtfully established that you can’t create space, you can only move through it quickly, unless it is full of books. So I gave away various collections over the years – my almost complete set of science fiction pocket books, my collection of local history books, various biology books. Now I find myself looking for them, fondly remembering them, missing them. I have even offered to give away books to friends that I have previously given away. So, a couple of rules if you love books (yes, let’s call it what it is, a love affair – don’t tell your spouse); never give away a book, and never ever move.


    • As booksellers, we get free proof copies and samples every other day. We have just had to get used to the idea of passing them along, or we really would have to move the kids out to the garage. We have settled on the idea of getting rid of the fiction, and holding on to the reference books.


  8. Very funny – I can relate to this alarmingly vividly! My cottage is crammed to the ceiling with bookshelves that are – in turn – crammed to full capacity with books. Close to 1000 books at last count. The best bit is – nothing matches, and they were all bought for content! And yes, I’ve read most of them too (why is that always a surprise to most people?). By the way, apart from some classics I’ve had since school and varsity, and a few Amazon shipped purchases, nearly all of my books came from Exclusive Books too…


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