I may be the last to have learned about the TikTTok decorating trend known as “bookshelf wealth” - a design aesthetic centered on shelves of haphazardly placed books and objets displayed on bookshelves to achieve a cozy, imperfect look. Anyone who has been living with books and art and beloved objects collected over a lifetime may find it curious to discover this is a new “trend.”
At the risk of sounding snobbish, I’m wondering aloud if the TikTokkers defining the latest rage in decorating acknowledge that, like any form of wealth, bookshelf wealth can only be amassed over years and years of careful saving.
I once sat next to a high-powered lawyer at a dinner party in New York who was raving about having just purchased an amazing collection of books at auction. When I asked what they included, his response stunned me: "I can't remember. I bought them because the leather was so beautiful." I was immediately put in mind of a shelter magazine trend that was popular at the time which recommended covering your collection of books with white or colored paper and organizing by shade to create a minimalist effect. Ouch! Bookshelf wealth is not minimalist. And it's certainly not color coded.
A truly beautiful bookshelf is filled with books that have been read and loved, whose covers are tattered or ringed with coffee stains. Art that has been collected and tells a story about the place it was discovered or how it captured the collector’s eye. Objects that were brought home from foreign travels and mixed with foraged and found objects that have meaning to the bookshelf’s owner. In other words, bookshelf wealth isn’t something you can achieve with a “refresh” or an “install.” It is something that grows organically, in layers over time without self consciousness or artifice. All that said, I do think the idea of bookshelf wealth honors the things that make a life and a home richer: books read and shared and loved well. Art that has been collected not for its monetary value or for the way it “works” with the fabric, but for its connection to the viewer. Curated souvenirs and artifacts that remind us of travels or milestones or long-ago mornings spent combing the beach or foraging in the woods. It’s wonderfully aspirational and perfectly achievable, but not over a weekend of styling.
Recently, I posted some thoughts about Bookshelf Wealth on my Instagram account, and I was shocked that so many people had the same strong feeling about this trend as I do. Here are a few collected thoughts on the matter, my own and those shared with me, as well as a few recommendations:
1. Be patient: Bookshelf Wealth is achieved over many years, and books that were chosen for aesthetic purposes don't achieve "wealth" at all; in fact, stage-managing a bookshelf is an impoverished approach. An empty space awaiting your favorite books is far better than buying books by the yard. Find a favorite vase or bowl to fill the void until you finish your next novel.
2. Join a book-of-the-month club. My own local bookstore, Parnassus (co-founded by the inimitable Ann Patchett), has a "First Editions" program in which one of their resident experts selects a new book each month and sends it to you in the mail. Not only do these programs introduce you to new books recommended by voracious readers, they also create the kind of patient discipline I'm talking about. It's a fun way to build a true collection of books you can recommend to your friends.
3. Hang art from your shelves for two reasons: one, because it's chic and interesting. Two because it's very helpful in hiding white space. Once your collection is overflowing, you can take it down and hang something smaller or keep it and remove it when you need to retrieve a book. My husband, Jon, is what you might call a bookshelf billionaire. His office is stacked with books not only on the shelves but growing in towers from the floor. Even so, we've hung an enormous painting of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello on a bank of his bookshelves and centered over an antique Chesterfield sofa.
4. Stack your favorite oversized books to use as bookends: I suspect many of the folks reading this post love the decoration of houses as much as I do and have a great collection of interior and design books. I love the way these larger tomes look stacked horizontally and they come in handy at the end of a shelf that's not quite filled with novels.
5. Avoid at all costs the "installed" look: there's nothing more soulless than a bookshelf that's been "assembled" in a few hours and filled with objects and books bought at the local interiors shop. For one thing, it reflects the aesthetic of someone else, and for another, it doesn't achieve the kind of layering that creates warmth and offers a glimpse of your life to visitors and friends.
6. Become a collector now: This may sound materialistic, but it's never too late to collect beautiful things that speak to you and bring you joy. I've been doing a lot of culling lately, and while I've got closets filled with clothes I'll never wear again and a toy closet that could fill FAO Schwartz, I've been surprised to find that the things I've purchased on vacations or come across in a favorite antique store or flea market have staying power. They feel like old friends, and they happen to look great on my bookshelves!
I'd love to hear your recommendations and reflections on how to achieve bookshelf wealth.