The coffee table and its book
‘The so-called “coffee-table book”, the big, richly-illustrated volume designed to be looked at rather than read, and left casually round the house rather than put on a shelf.’ The Times, 2nd July 1964, p. 16.
‘There is no longer a market for those hollow tomes known as ‘coffee-table books’. Overproduced and – so far as their contents go – underdeveloped, these volumes were put out internationally by a few chains of publishing houses, who cashed in on the postwar wave of culture-consciousness and travel-lust created by years of destruction and isolation.’ Douglas Cooper celebrating ‘The Demise of the Coffee-Table Book’ , TLS, 20th June 1968, pp. 643-4.
‘Coffee-table book is a pejorative term, because it suggests decoration and furniture: an object that needs a table under it in order to be admired – rather than a reader.’ Roger Conover in The Art Journal, lxv / 4 (2006) p. 45.
What did the inoffensive, unobtrusive coffee table do to have to carry such a burden? Is there a conspiracy of tee-totallers so implacably inimical to all things caffeine that it feels it must heap guilt on this low-lying piece of lounge furniture? Coffee — that symbol of sociability, even of a public sphere alight with quick-fire debate — becomes associated with the wooden table of the private household and that, in turn, becomes linked to the wood-pulp of paper bound up to be pulpy, glossy hard-back publications that symbolise an unintellectual or anti-intellectual culture. Books there to divert the sitter when their host is out of the room or when conversation lags. What tergiversations our language has taken.
‘Coffee table’ itself seems to be a phrase from the later nineteenth century, though how such a table contrasts with others I am not sure: was this a new word for an old object? The ‘coffee-table book’, on the other hand, is first recorded in 1962 – though its use, in a book title (The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, edited by John Lynch: your future will be read with elevenses), suggests that the term was already in circulation, if not in common usage: articles in the years immediately following repeatedly feel the need to define it, suggesting that they are minting its currency. One of those articles, in The Sunday Times Magazine for November 1963 (I take this reference from the OED), talks of it as a replacement for an older term – the ‘grand-piano book’ – but I have not found any sighting of that phrase in the OED or in my (admittedly brief) searches elsewhere.
This is not the history of the term that Wikipedia provides. Yes, the on-line encyclopaedia has a page for it, and, yes, it has enough misreadings and inaccuracies to please its detractors. For instance, it claims the term was used in nineteenth-century Britain but its reference is to a 1979 journal review which states no such thing. Or, at least, it claims it today and will do until it is re-written — that is a key advantage of the site. The webpage also helpfully provides an image of a coffee table, replete with two mugs and a fat book. Look closely and you can identify the volume: it is David Silcox’s The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (2003). If you want to buy it, it is still in print and you can do so — in fact, according to the sales blurb, you must do so because it ‘would make a lovely gift, or keepsake of Canada, and a “must have” for any art enthusiast’. What? To give, to keep, to hold — but how about to read? That, of course, is the source of the animus of the middle-to-high brow against this type of book: it may be diverting but it diverts the publishing industry from what they perceive to be its primary task, to make available to all the world true mind-expanding intellectual texts, with little need for technicolor illustration.
That, though, is not what interests me in the term. I came to thinking about the history of the concept (and there is my pitch for a bestseller: the Illustrated History of Coffee Table Books, a sure-fire Christmas stocking filler, if you are XL) because I was considering the semiotics of the shape of books. To put it briefly, we expect our books to have a width:height ratio of about 2:3 and anything widely divergent from that — Mr Silcox’s work at 85:100 is typical of the coffee-table book-size — suggests it has a different use; it is, in our cultural understanding, a book which is not a book. That perception is reinforced by a name — grand-piano as much as coffee-table — which suggests that it is a book out of place: it is not, as The Times put it, found on the shelf. Books should be kept upright in cases, not flat on tables. If, that is, you have space for book-cases (and – I hear my dear wife reminding me — if you have few enough books that they can be contained therein). There is something in the terminology about inappropriate behaviour: a book is not to read while tinkling on the ivories, nor to peruse over a cup of hot coffee. It is inappropriate because it is in the wrong position, with the assumptions that implies of there being right spaces and correct habits. What, your house has no library? As Lord Curzon would have said: can such poverty exist?
There is, in other words, a hint in the phrasing about the changing shape of dosmetic space and about the practices that go on behind its closed doors. The animus against coffee-table books suggest a sort of mercantilist concern that publishing is a finite size and if more glossy volumes are produced, the number of honest, hard-thinking books will decline. This, of course, need not be the case. But perhaps there is something more fundamental here: colourful tomes are easy not just on the eye but on the mind; lazy books lead to lazy reading. Was it to this end we struggled towards universal literacy, might be the complaint. In other words, reading is not enough – right reading is what is required, and that requires the right location and the right book. It would be easy to shout this down as an élitist desire to control but do you not hear the fear in the voice? The perplexity at plurality — there is no one reading but a plethora of practices. Just as there is no end to books — and no no-go areas for them.
[He stops and goes to put the kettle on].