Go ahead, judge this book by its cover. There’s nothing inside.
Sun., May 14, 2023
Anna Shiwlall, the owner of 27 Diamonds Interior Design in Anaheim, Calif., April 23, 2023. Already the norm for film sets and commercial spaces, fake books are becoming common fixtures in homes, but if you see one, you might never know. (BETH COLLER/New York Times)
If it looks like a book, feels like a book and stacks like a book, there’s still a good chance it may not be a book.
Fake books come in several different forms: once-real books that are hollowed out, fabric backdrops with images of books printed on them, empty boxlike objects with faux titles and authors or sometimes just a facade of spines along a bookshelf. Already the norm for film sets and commercial spaces, fake books are becoming popular fixtures in homes. While some people are going all in and covering entire walls in fake books, others are aghast at the thought that someone would think to decorate with a book that isn’t real.
“I will never use fake books,” said Jeanie Engelbach, an interior designer and organizer in New York City. “It just registers as pretentious, and it creates the illusion that you are either better read or smarter than you really are.”
Engelbach said she has frequently uses books as décor, at times styling clients’ bookcases with aesthetics taking priority over function, which is a typical interior design practice.
At Books by the Foot – a company that sells, as its name suggests, books by the foot – one can purchase books by color (options include “luscious creams,” “vintage cabernet” and “rainbow ombre”), by subject (“well-read art” or “gardening”), wrapped books (covered in linen or rose gold) and more. The tomes are all “rescue books,” ones that would otherwise be discarded or recycled for paper pulp, said Charles Roberts, the president of Books by the Foot’s parent company, Wonder Book.
During the pandemic lockdown in 2020, remote work created increased demand for the company’s services. “People were requesting books for Zoom meetings,” Roberts said. “They wanted classic literature, cookbooks or other things for their backgrounds, kind of like props but also to reflect their personality and tastes. People wanted to avoid getting made fun of for having a romance novel in their background.”
While it mostly specializes in the sale of real books, the company has also dabbled in the world of faux ones. The bookseller has cut books – so only the spines remain – and glued them to shelves for cruise ships, “where they don’t want to have a lot of weight or worry that the books will fall off the shelves if the weather gets bad,” Roberts said.
There are other, sometimes counterintuitive, uses for fake tomes. Although it has the capacity to hold more than 1.35 million of them, many of the books in China’s 360,000-square-foot Tianjin Binhai Library aren’t real. Instead, perforated aluminum plates emblazoned with images of books can be found, primarily on the upper shelves of the atrium. While the presence of artificial books in a place devoted to reading has been widely criticized – “more fiction than books,” one headline mocked – it remains a buzzy tourist attraction. After all, the books don’t need to be real if it’s just for Instagram.
Tina Ramchandani, an interior designer in New York, said that her firm has used fake books in both commercial and residential settings. For a dressing room in a members-only club in New Jersey, “where nobody was really going to read the books, but where there were bookshelves, we got all fake books,” Ramchandani said.
For her clients’ homes, fake books are usually placed on the upper shelves of bookcases that can’t easily be reached. “We did this for a house out in the Hamptons. It’s usually for larger homes, where you’re not using every part of the home like you would in the city,” Ramchandani said. “Say you have an extra reading room, library or some sort of media room where you fill it with books and can’t ever get to the top parts. So instead of doing real books that are going to collect dust that you’re never going to access, we end up doing fake books.”
Anna Shiwlall, the owner of 27 Diamonds Interior Design in Anaheim, California, said that she frequently makes use of fake books, especially if they are “of certain sizes or colors that coordinate with the room or if we want the client to feel a portrayal of a well-traveled life.”
“Not too many people read physical books now, but we are reminded of certain things when we’re surrounded by them,” Shiwlall said. “The smell of it, the stories it brings or the colors that make the room pop.”
Justin Felipe, 37, one of Shiwlall’s clients in Rancho Cucamonga, California, said he doesn’t even know how many fake books are in his house. They’re so convincing that most visitors believe them to be real books, and they’re mostly in the style of vintage mystery books or books about fashion, chosen primarily for their size and color.
“They’re sprinkled around,” Felipe said. “They are in my office, living room, family room, some of night stands in my guest rooms and in my master bedroom bookcase.” If he had to guess how many there were, Felipe said, he’d estimate 20 to 30.
“It doesn’t matter to me that they’re fake,” Felipe said. “I wanted to make the room look complete, so whatever looks good I’m happy with.”
Jeff Brown, who lives in Brownsville, Oregon, has sold 1,200 faux books on Etsy.
A DIYer, Brown takes real books that he finds at thrift stores and yard sales, glues the pages together and hollows out the center; the end result is a book-like object that customers can use to store trinkets or small valuables.
His customers have used the books to hold an engagement ring for a proposal, succulents, cash, photos and more. “There was a preacher who did a lot of weddings, but he was losing his memory so he couldn’t always remember what to say. So he wanted a book that could conceal that he was reading from his phone,” Brown said. They used a nondescript black book, Brown said, as the preacher didn’t want to cut a Bible (although hollowed-out Bibles are the most popular request from Brown’s customers).
Covogoods, in Salt Lake City, manufactures what’s known as the “CovoBox,” which looks like a normal stack of books from the front, but from the back it’s easy to see that the books are stuck together and carved out, leaving room for storage. “Many of our products are made from books that were headed for landfills,” said Bryan Bush, the CEO.
Arielle Zibrak, an English professor at the University of Wyoming, compared today’s use of fake books to their presence in the fiction of the Gilded Age, where they typically symbolized “the spiritual and intellectual poverty associated with empty consumption and material excess.”
“Novelists like Edith Wharton depict the new money families of the Gilded Age, those whose fortunes came from industry rather than land holdings, experiencing an astronomical rise in wealth outpaced by their ability to understand or consume art and culture,” said Zibrak. “In these novels, buying fake or purely decorative books is aligned with having poor taste in art or an ignorance of social custom.”
Another famous literary example of unread books can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which is set in the Roaring Twenties, an era nearly synonymous with overconsumption. The books in Jay Gatsby’s library were “uncut” – “books at this time would arrive with the pages folded together; to read them one used a letter opener to cut the pages apart,” Zibrak said. “The implication here is that Gatsby is a fake gentleman – one who buys the library to appear cultured but doesn’t actually learn from it.”
The United Kingdom-based company DecBooks specializes in creating fake tomes, by a special molding process that captures even the smallest of details from antique books, said Nigel Ponsford, a founding partner.
“Private clients love concealing doors, having a secret door leading into perhaps a water closet, a games room or even just storage,” Ponsford said, adding that his company has provided faux volumes for bars, restaurants and film sets. One well-known British politician, Ponsford said, requested that the fake books he commissioned had the names of his family members on the spines to appear as authors.
Last year, DecBooks provided 20,000 fake books for a major Netflix production. The company also filled the entire Gladstone Library at One Whitehall Place, a wedding venue in London, with 35,000 replicas.
More quotidian displays of fake books exist as well.
John Shumway, 51, an engineer living in Snohomish, Washington, used a curtain with an image of a bookcase for the background of his Zoom calls in 2020.
Because most of his family was in the house during the lockdown, including his wife and four of his children, Shumway was left with the garage to use as his home office. Inspired by journalists who pulled similar tricks with fake backgrounds on television, he said, he spent around $100 “to get a passable background so that I’d looked like I was in an office on video calls.”
“I usually only used it when interviewing job applicants or other situations where I didn’t want to draw attention to my garage office,” Shumway said.
He revealed his magic trick on Twitter.
Behind the curtain and beyond the garage, Shumway could create his own library. “My wife and I have thousands of real books in our house and can’t understand people who decorate with fake books,” he said. “Ironically, I probably could have carved out a small office space in our house if we didn’t have so many real bookshelves.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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