The idea of the book: Catalog props revisited

Posted by Rob Walker on April 23, 2010
Posted Under: The Designed Life

“What is it with all these books?” Nicholson Baker asked in the 1995 New Yorker piece about books used as props in catalogs (as mentioned yesterday). And given that date it’s a little surprising that he continues: “Isn’t the Book supposed to be in decline – its authority eroding, its informational tax based fleeing to suburbs of impeccably edged and weeded silicon?”

Fifteen years later, that’s still the conventional wisdom. (Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong – just that like so much of today’s digital euphoria, it’s really familiar. Sometimes it amazes me how little has changed in the past decade and a half. But that’s another story.) Baker’s story wasn’t about the future of publishing, it was about what books, as objects, signify — after all, those catalog pages weren’t full of random cassettes, or old magazines, or stray cell phones. I mentioned some of his answers in yesterday’s post.

What I got curious about is whether, fifteen years later, books still serve this sort of function – not in mail-order catalogs, per se, but in their online descendants. I spent a bit of time poking around the site of The Company Store. Poking around a web site is a far different experience than paging through a catalog — much more lean-forward, as they say, clicking and making decisions instead of idly following the flow while letting the mind wander. But I found a few things before I got tired of the exercise.

At the top of this post is the Romantic Table Collection (it now seems to have disappeared from the site) —  included a couple of volumes in a manner that I suspect would have fit right in with the catalog imagery Baker pondered a decade and a half ago. Below: Vivid Ottoman. I enjoy this use of books as props, because the little stack on the left is being deployed, somewhat absurdly, as a superfluous and probably unwieldy stand for a vase. This seems to degrade the of the book, if you ask me: The possibility of these books being opened is basically eliminated; books become just things lying around to be put to some kind of “use,” however pointless.

In this entry for Colorblock Bedding (also now gone), I noticed the books under the nightstand, but …

… what’s odd is that if you look closer you’ll notice that these appear to be two identical copies of each of two books. What would explain this? Baker noted certain books popping up in multiple photographs in a single catalog — but multiple copies of the same title in the same image? This seems like sloppiness on the part of the props person, no? And again: a bit of an insult to the idea of the book.

One more post related to the Baker piece next week – sorry to go on about it, but there’s so much in that seems important to the this occasional series on idea of the book.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page. Tags:

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