Emily Rhodes

Cooking the books: the rise of fake libraries

There is a growing fashion for fake books. Not fake as in written by a series of AI prompts, but fake as in things – cleverly painted empty boxes, or a façade of spines glued to a wall – designed to mislead the casual onlooker into thinking that they are books.

A recent New York Times article highlighted the trend. It featured various interior designers offering spurious arguments in favour of fakes over real books: they can be a practical solution for hard-to-reach shelves; a smart example of upcycling unwanted volumes destined for landfill; useful and humorous storage boxes. Neat, quirky design solutions are, however, the least of it. This fashion signals a profound shift in our attitude to books. Rather than perceiving them as holders of information, stores of stories, we are increasingly perceiving them as just things – albeit pretty things.

If we arrange our shelves by colour gradient, we might easily look to buy a blue book rather than a great novel

Books have never been more beautiful. Even the paperback, first conceived as a cheap option for the masses, has become seductive, with eye-popping covers featuring expert designs and shiny colours. Jamie Keenan, a veteran book designer whose clients include Penguin, Knopf and Vintage, explains: ‘It’s easier now to get special colours, or metallics for covers, to get them dye cut or embossed. Everything’s much more sophisticated than it was 20 years ago.’

The current commitment to producing beautiful books came about in part as a reaction to eBooks. When those took off in 2006-07, the sudden ease of consuming books electronically, divorcing their content from their materiality and transforming them into weightless, instantly downloadable and low-cost items, spurred publishers to work hard to make physical editions more appealing. As Keenan says: ‘There’s far more understanding of what a cover can do in terms of selling the book.’

These covers are at their most dazzling when they flash before our eyes in the scroll of social media.

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