I was recently made aware of a fascinating business called Books by the Foot. This business buys bulk books from publishers and libraries and other sources that might otherwise just throw them away and then sells them by the foot for people who want to create the visual appearance of having a giant library of books. In some cases, this does make sense – a person making a film or a theatrical production might want this very kind of prop (though I know from experience that many of them just have these “prop” shelves of books that are basically book spines glued to boards that they can just slip right into standard bookshelves).
But why else would someone patronize this business? Well, I got another big clue from this article in the Paris Review, entitled When You Need Ten Feet of Books. The story starts off with this anecdote:
“I once knew a man who bought antique books by the foot to fill the majestic library of a new house. He was completely unembarrassed by this fact, which is, I guess, the only way to be, and there was something very eighteenth century about the whole thing. (On close inspection, a lot of them proved to be bound sermons, in many volumes.) The idea of insufficient books to fill shelves is a novel idea to most apartment dwellers, certainly in New York. I was, therefore, fascinated to read about the Strand Bookstore’s Books by the Foot program, in which the New York institution furnishes volumes for films, magazine shoots, private buyers, and, presumably, decorators.”
At first, the idea of simply filling shelves with books that weren’t selected with personal interest in mind and done mostly for decoration seemed bizarre to me. I find shelves of books to be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s because those books represent titles chosen by the owner and is a reflection of their personality and interests.
Then I stopped for a second and really thought about it. Most of the books in our house are out of sight of guests, but there are definitely some spaces where we have some books on display and, often, the books on those displays are chosen in terms of what they represent to others. I’m much more likely to put ten books that I think are impressive on that shelf rather than the last ten books I happen to have read.
Why? On some level, the reason we have many items in our home is to impress others. We want others to see our bookshelves and think, “Wow, that dude… he’s reading some good stuff!” We want others to see our music collections and think, “Wow, she’s got some seriously good taste!” We want others to look at our wall hangings and thin, “Now that’s interesting!” or “That’s so sentimental and wonderful!”
The truth is that if I designed my house solely in a way that made me happy, I’d probably be afraid to invite most people to my house. Sure, I might invite certain people over, but I’d be disinclined to have people over. I would look like some guy obsessed with fermenting foods (as I’d have several shelves with jars of foods in brine) and obsessed with weird overly intricate board games with a taste for really really odd books and a fetish for pens. Honestly, it wouldn’t be very inviting to guests in my home and would create a strong but inaccurate sense of how I want to interact and socialize with people.
Here’s the real question, though: why am I choosing to display some things and not others in terms of decorating my home? Why do I choose a shelf full of books – and why do I have particular books on those shelves? It’s because, in the end, how we choose to decorate our house when we have guests over is part of how we present ourselves to the world, and we want that presentation to be positive. That’s why people often clean up in a hurry when they know guests are coming over – they want to have a nice presentation for the world and not necessarily a fully accurate one – and it’s the same reason why we choose some home decor options and not others.
With that in mind, I started looking around our home at some of the items we have on display for guests to see. We have an expensive china cabinet that looks nice, but we rarely use it. It’s a display case for stuff. There are items in that china cabinet on display that we rarely use, too. I see all sorts of little things on display like that – they’re nice, but do they actually represent much about us? Are they functional in any way?
When I look at our wall hangings, I find that some things really fill me with positive feelings – an old Bob Ross-style painting my great grandmother made that I’ve always liked, another beautiful painting of a glass vase spilled on a tabletop that’s done by my great aunt who is a seriously talented artist, family photos, photos from our travels, some of the books on the shelf, and our toy shelf (because I love that it makes children feel welcome).
Other decorations don’t really feel me with anything. They’re just items bought from a store that do express some sentiment that I agree with, but it’s about as impersonal as that sentiment can possibly be. What does this really express about me or about us? Very little.
Here’s the thing – I want the things that decorate my home to express me in a way that I want the world to see, and the truth is that most of the really effective ways to make that expression aren’t very expensive.
When I look through my house and see the things that are really meaningful, they’re almost all gifts from loved ones or expressions of experiences I’ve had. I have paintings that loved ones have made or photographs or simple reminders of great experiences. Those things are things that are meaningful to me and that I’m happy to share with others who enter my home.
Many of the other things? They’re just… there. They look fine, but they were an investment of money just to fill wall space. They don’t express any real meaning. Simply expressing a sentiment that I agree with isn’t enough; simply looking pretty isn’t enough. There are infinite things that express shared sentiments. There are infinite things that are pretty. Why spend money on them unless there’s something deeper and more meaningful?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to change this. I’ve taken down some wall decorations that weren’t meaningful to me (or to Sarah) and replaced some of them, mostly by reusing old frames and putting in photographs of our travels. I’ve started to switch out many of the items that we store in our china cabinet – again, working with Sarah to make sure that I’m not moving anything that is meaningful to her.
What I’m finding, again and again, is that the meaningful things I’m adding are very inexpensive. I’m far happier with a $5 photo in a simple frame or a found item from a trip or a map with tacks on it depicting our travels as I am with an expensive decoration from the Pottery Barn. Why? This stuff means something to me, and it’s something I love sharing with others. It’s also mostly inexpensive because it’s centered around experience and ideas and feelings rather than the material itself.
I get far more value and pride and happiness out of a simple frame containing a photo of a great experience or a great location I’ve been to than I get out of a $50 wall hanging from a home decor store. I get far more value and pride and happiness out of an unusual item my grandmother gave me after one of her travels than I get out of a $100 decor item from Pier One. I’m far more excited to show off a simple plant that came from a start off of a plant that Sarah’s aunt once owned than I am to show off a beautiful vase in the corner. I would way rather display a painting from my great grandmother that I love than a $500 print from a known artist.
If my home decor is meant, at least in part, to show the sides of me that I want to share with the world, then it starts with the experiences I’ve had and with the people I love and with the things I’m passionate about. I don’t find those things in the home decor section at the store, aside from a simple frame for a photograph or another item. I don’t find those things even in an art gallery, as those things are often beautiful and do speak to me, but they’re not by me and for me and ought to be shared with the world.
I challenge you to do this simple experiment. Go through your home and look at everything that a guest might see when they visit. What does that item really say about you and what you value and what you want to share with the world? Yes, some things are there because of functionality, like a couch, and you probably want it to look good, but what is the meaning behind that vase or that hutch? What does it contain that has real meaning for you that you want to share with people who visit you?
You may conclude that most of the items you have on display really are good choices that express what you want to show to the world, but you may come to some valuable conclusions about things you may choose to buy in the future and the changes you may want to make. May those choices be wise ones and in line with the person you really are and what you want to share. Those types of choices tend to be both less expensive and more meaningful, which means they have far more value.