Death of a Shelf, Man

The bookshelf is the noblest of all furniture. For it is upon those polished, wooden shelves of erudition that the repository of all written knowledge and literary endeavor rests. Books are much more than paper pages bound together. When Robert Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, in 1952 announced the completion of the Great Books project, he said, “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage … This is its meaning for mankind.”

The maple, pine or particle board shelves that support these books are nearly as significant, and now they are passing into oblivion. There is no future for the furniture of the furniture of the mind.

Sure, there are other important kinds of furniture that populate our homes. Here in the sophisticated West, we sit on chairs, rather than the floor or on oppressed citizens. If there are no tray tables handy we eat off of dining room tables. The couch is crucially important, since without couches we might never learn about sex and the joys of being horizontal with girls. In front of those couches are oddly shaped contrivances where we place our coffee cups and large bowls of the universe’s most mysterious substance, potpourri.

In one of my old homes I had not one but two credenzas. These long and low structures were perfect for stereo systems, and conveyed an old-fashioned sense of prestige. Hard to believe that many of my friends had never seen a credenza, or even knew what they were. Odd furniture seems to run in the family; in our living room, when I was a schoolboy, my mother once had a commode, which caused no end of vulgar jokes. Such pieces of formal furniture are as rare nowadays as marriage chests.

In the bedroom, along with the bed, naturally, will be an armoire or a dresser  of some kind, and the kitchen would not be a kitchen if there were no cabinets in which to store cups and plates and other eating utensils, along with cooking tools and equipment of every description.

But the bookshelf has stood alone in its noble purpose: it stored, displayed and protected books, and it has fulfilled this elevated mission for thousands of years. However, some feel that it is soon to be extinct. History shows that species die out when they no longer fit in, and can’t defend themselves from the changes that occur around them. On the credenza behind me, as I sit at my desk here in my office, a treasured copy of Darwin sits on top of my old 8-track tape player, as a kind of evolutionary joke.

In Darwin’s devastatingly important work of 1859, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, he tells us that to survive, a species must change with the times and adapt. I believe that the dodo died out, not because the flightless bird was easy to catch and then eaten in vast quantities by hungry sailors, but because it couldn’t go along with the designated hitter rule of 1973.

Recent articles suggest that the bookshelf will follow this unswerving path to obsolescence. But why?

People don’t read anymore. If you attempt to start a conversation with the classic gambit, “What are you reading lately?” a blank expression will come over the person’s face. If you ask someone if they have read a particular book, they will tell you, ”No, but I have seen the movie” or “Did they turn it into a movie?” or “Why on earth would I want to read that?”

When a friend of my wife’s planned a trip to the UK, and announced her intention to visit London, I handed her my 1152-page copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s wonderful historical novel, London.  Rather than thank me, she frowned and turned it over and over again in her hands, more focused on the thickness of the book and the challenge it represented, rather than the delights that awaited within.

To prepare for this story, I designed a scientific survey about reading habits, and queried 11,032 people while at the coffee shop yesterday afternoon. I have summarized the results thus:


Q: Do you like to read?  A: Nah. It’s too hard, and it takes too long.

Q: What do you read the most often?  A: My grocery list.

Q: Do your kids read?  A: I think they have to read books in school, but I’m not sure.

Q: Do you own any special old books that your parents or grandparents owned?  A: I have my dad’s old Playboys.

Q: Do you read anything? Anything at all?  A: Billboards if there’s a hunky guy in his underwear.


Among the people who answered my questionnaire were a few from New England, who revealed that they do not read speed limit signs. Lots of people evidently don’t read No Smoking signs, or Don’t Park Here signs. There are quite a lot of citizens out there — who vote and procreate — who simply don’t want to read at all.

What’s wrong with these people?  Don’t they know that reading is fun? It’s stimulating, it’s rewarding, and it gives you lots of pleasure units.

America prefers to look at pretty pictures.  Europeans still read; why not Americans? Do we have shorter attention spans? Do we need more stimuli and need pleasure fulfillment quicker? Are we lazy and dumb? Have our eyeballs radically changed from eons of watching TV?

Of those few dinosaurs remaining who do still read for pleasure, the vast majority has purchased a Kindle or a similar device for reading e-books. If you don’t read actual books, and you don’t own books, why would anybody need a bookshelf?

According to the Economist, IKEA sees the future, and it does not include books. As everybody knows, IKEA is a multibillion dollar business started by a Swedish boy with big ideas. (Presumably, Ingvar Kamprad likes to read.) Nearly everyone in the United States either has IKEA furniture in their homes or knows someone who does. The bread and butter of IKEA’s bookshelf line is called the BILLY, which is a masculine Swedish name. The BILLY bookshelf is in approximately 58.2% of all American homes. (I just made up that statistic, but it feels right.) Within a radius of a couple miles from a college campus, the proportion is even higher. The BILLY comes in a variety of sizes and color finishes, and is popular because it is inexpensive and represents good value. The Swedish product planners are constantly looking for new products, and are sensitive to changing tastes.

IKEA’s designers are revamping the specifications of the ubiquitous BILLY. The shelf part itself will be deeper and is intended to hold decorative bric-a-brac and curios like little statues, glass figurines, grandma’s collection of porcelain cats, football trophies and so forth. IKEA’s marketing materials are pushing glass doors as an important add-on to the BILLY system. This is to enhance the idea that, when tricked out with fancy glass doors, the new BILLY would be perfect for consumers to display their stuff. This reinforces the idea that consumers want a place for their possessions to be seen, rather than used. The new revised shelf, which is already appearing in IKEA catalogs, is being called the “stuffshelf,” to reflect the fact that it will never hold books.

The new stuffshelf even comes with an unusual document, which new owners must sign: if you buy one of the new shelves, you must promise to never use them to store books.

Thoroughly dejected, on the way home from the coffee shop, I asked one last random passerby what was the last thing he read. He told me it was the assembly instructions for his new BILLY stuffshelf.


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2 Responses to “Death of a Shelf, Man”

  1. matthewknuckles Says:

    A couple things:
    1. I’m not sure anything will replace the feeling of placing a completed book, with it’s broken spine and dog-eared pages, back on the shelf like trophy.
    2. There is something about having furniture. As a grad student and moving into a new place each year, I miss having furniture. Something that isn’t composite. Actual heavy, wooden furniture that is a bitch to move but looks SO good.

    • niblick Says:

      Mr Knuckles. My wife and I met in Scotland, while we were there for post-grad study. We fell in love largely because we both love books. We have too many books, and we keep buying — and reading — books. Putting one on a shelf is like putting a trophy up there; it’s like you have won something, you have finished and achieved something.

      Furniture is what you want it to be, while what you have can be furniture, and soon I will need a drink to figure out what I just said. Look at an old post about boxes and moving back to Seattle, and see if that doesn’t combine the themes of books and furniture again.

      Thanks for commenting, sir.

      all the best,

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