Books as Furniture

Years ago, I walked into a used book store in Chicago, and beheld an astronomically unlikely thing: a run of pristine leather books, each stamped “caslon” in gold letters, each in a typeface of a different vintage. These were type specimen books from the Caslon foundry, and to see them in such quantity was a singular experience. Type specimens are usually accumulated individually, painstakingly, and expensively, from antiquarian specialists or the occasional flea market. Only rarely do they surface in sets, and when they do it’s usually at a private auction, not on the shelf behind the counter at a bookshop that also sells gum.

Noticing the tag marked “sold,” I asked what by then had become a reflexive question: “Are these going to Tobias Frere-Jones?” The shopkeeper replied that they were not: they’d been sold to one of the store’s regulars, a philistine decorator who’s always on the lookout for clean leather bindings.

This was my first brush with “books by the yard,” a hot topic last week. At Design Observer, Steve Heller unearthed a copy of 65 Ways to Decorate with Books in Your Home; in The New Yorker, Austin Kelley wrote about the bookshelves of one Dr. Indiana Jones, furnished by the Books-by-the-foot service at New York’s Strand bookstore. But neither article mentioned my favorite work on the subject, the achingly funny Books as Furniture by Nicholson Baker.

Baker, the unchallenged master of profound minutiae, takes a loupe to a collection of mail-order catalogs and returns with some outstanding notes about the handsome books that populate their pages. A favorite moment:

In one of the latest J. Crew catalogs, there is a literary interlude on page 33: a man in shorts and plaster-dusted work boots, sitting in a half-remodeled room — on break, apparently, from his labor of hammering and gentrifying — is looking something up in what close inspection reveals to be a Guide Bleu to Switzerland, probably from the forties, in French.

The essay appears in The Size of Thoughts (and Other Lumber), a rewarding collection of Baker’s writings that everyone should have. Typophiles will appreciate Baker’s article about obsolete forms of punctuation, the climax of which is a sentence that can’t be written without using a specific extinct species. And designers will enjoy his “predictive matrix of swear words that don’t exist but should,” created for a review of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Volume 1, A-G.) It’s something out of a parallel universe, in which Edward R. Tufte was the art director of Mad. —JH

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