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Back to front


There is an absurd new trend in interior decorating that you may have noticed on social media or sites like Pinterest. It involves displaying books with their spines to the wall and their pages facing outwards. The look is considered desirable by visual purists who prefer a monochrome interior.

Clearly, the person who started this fashion is no reader as this look prevents you from ever finding anything on your shelves. It is merely using books as neutral wallpaper.

At home, I recently colour-blocked my bookshelves. It started purely as a fun exercise that took a day to achieve. When it was complete, I liked the look enough to keep it that way, noticing how many more black and white spines my collection featured, closely followed by the orange zing of Penguin paperbacks and the pale green of their twentieth-century- classic cousins. My purple shelf is the smallest. Yellow had a moment. Red is always popular.  I’ve got a good visual memory so I remember what colour my books are and can find them as easily as if they were in alphabetical order, so it’s no inconvenience.

Here’s a snap of part of my book collection. Caroline Baum, Reader in Residence, bookshelf

But while the current fad strikes me as foolishly impractical in the extreme, it does have respectable historical antecedents. I discovered this on a guided tour of the Bodleian library in Oxford last year. Yes, the one where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed. 

It turns out that some of the earliest volumes in their collection, dating from the Medieval era,  were chained to the shelves along the spines,  and that they were displayed with their pages facing out. But one detail made this more practical than the current trend: a number was printed on to the pages which could be cross-referenced with a list in the library for easy identification.

In fact, until the eighteenth-century book titles and their authorship were printed on the edges of pages. The fashion for spines facing outwards came about when wealthy collectors decided to have titles embossed in gold on leather bindings to give their libraries a smart, unified look. This was apparently known by historians as ‘The Great Turnaround’ 

Not surprisingly there has been a chorus of disapproval against the hashtag #booksbackwards. But design writer Karen McCartney has a more tolerant point of view:

‘While I do think it ridiculous for paperbacks, when it comes to coffee table books they are game for interior decorative interpretation. Looking around our living space we have five book stacks - sometimes I have taken off the dust jackets as the colour of the binding is beautiful or in the case of a gardening book I produced and wrote recently for William Dangar, the black block-sprayed edges look dramatic facing outwards. I do recall an image of a circular Georgian table, unselfconsciously piled with books, a mix of spines fore and aft and it seemed a celebration of books, undiminished by which way they faced; its casualness felt like an invitation to be picked-up which is, at the end of the day, what matters.’ 

Before I leave the subject of books back to front alone, I should just mention one completely unidentifiable library that makes no pretence of being functional but is a  restful artwork at MONA in Hobart.

It consists of a small room filled with shelves of books all wearing white covers. The effect is of pleasing uniformity and purity.

Untitled (White Library) 2004-2006 is by Wilfredo Prieto, a Cuban artist,  and consists of 6000 entirely blank books. It offers a wonderfully orderly and neat contrast to a neighbouring artwork that is not so much a library as a ravaged ruin of one, like the haunted remnant of a book collection that might have belonged to giants. The towering 6.5-metre high stack of lead books by Anselm Kiefer teetering on shelves that seem barely able to contain their weight and freight of terrible stories sits surrounded by shards of broken glass - a haunting monument to the deliberate burning and desecration of books by regimes that have sought to control our ideas and imaginations.   

"Untitled" (White Library) by Wilfredo Prieto, now situated on the second sub level of MONA in Hobart, Tasmania.

My position in regard to the current back to front fashion is unequivocal. It’s best summed up in a short, sharp expression that applies as much to moral courage as to how you arrange your library: show some spine.

Caroline Baum
State Library Reader in Residence