The death of the shelf

In the age of broadband and the cloud, will our walls be bare?
May 21, 2014

Sources: Emarketer; BPI; IKEA; Nielsen Bookscan; Netflix

You might think that rumours of the death of the shelf are greatly exaggerated—at least if you visit my household, where shelves are a hot topic and a source of contention. I arrived home last week after a few days working on a book (one which will, I hope, eventually be printed, published, and require shelving), to discover that two new shelves had appeared in the kitchen. One of these was fairly utilitarian: a simple additional narrow shelf in the pantry to hold those troublesome pickle jars; but the other was positively baroque—a mosaic-encrusted ledge, high up above the work surface, supported by two ornate brackets, featuring dancing boys teased out of their wrought iron. I was informed that the brackets used to hold up a Victorian lavatory cistern, and I can assure you, had I expressed anything but wholehearted approval of the new shelf and its bog boys (as I immediately termed them), there would’ve been a domestic domestic.

My wife and I are of a generation—late baby-boomers, now in our early fifties—who revere the shelf. The shelf is, for us, the repository of culture-in-view. Ranged along our shelves are all the artefacts we possess that indicate to ourselves, and those we admit to the house, what we know, what we like, and what we consider to be of importance either for its use-value, or its aesthetics. The application of shelving to our rooms makes of them individual chambers within a memory palace to which we and our invitees have open and continuous access. If you like, the shelves are the joinery knitting together the past and the present, the public and the private, the practical and the decorative. Far more than paintings, or other furniture, the shelves—whose raison d’être is to both contain and display—are, I would argue, the very lynchpins of a form of bourgeois domesticity dating from at least the early modern period.

At Skara Brae, the Neolithic village in Orkney that remained intact beneath a sand dune until being spectacularly and providentially revealed by a storm in the winter of 1850, you can see Stone Age houses with fireplaces, beds and shelving systems that have endured for rising 5,000 years. On these petrified brick-and-board units (so suggestive of the neo-functionalism of the 1970s), are grouped small pots, domestic implements and other tools; and while it’s the merest speculation as to whether the inhabitants viewed their arrangement and display in the same way my wife does the new kitchen shelf, with its assemblage of different-sized coffee percolators and cafetières, I think it reasonable to imagine they did. Certainly there are plenty of depictions of shelves in pre-modern contexts which indicate exactly this dual-purposing of the presentational and the practical; and by the time the Renaissance arrives the shelf is fully integrated into pictorial space as a representational trope: a painted figuration of three-dimensional stone that, along with pediments, niches, entablatures and other architectural detailing, serves to impose the manmade on the natural and even the heavenly: the Pietà and the Madonna Lactans are both often to be seen shelved.

But arguably it is only in the 19th century that the domestic shelf becomes fully ideologically articulated. Somewhere in the functionalist-decorative fault lines between the Biedermeier, the Belle Époque and the Arts & Crafts a different, distinctively modern and emphatically middle-class shelf is put up. The capitulation and recapitulation of the craftsman-like as the decorative exists in paradoxical relation to the onset of the mass production of a whole range of objects: lest we forget, William Morris funded his socialist-aesthetical dreaming off the back of a hugely successful wallpaper business.

I would argue that so long as books and bibelots remain highly expensive and crafted the shelf is an insecure place to house them—after all they may be knocked off. But between the 1860s and the 1880s these artefacts become cheaper and widely available, so shelves are put up to house them. Culture ceases to be an aristocratic matter of congenital acquisition, but instead an attribute it is possible to acquire off the peg—from WHSmith or Whiteleys and show off on shelves supplied by Maples or Heals.

Writing half a century later, Walter Benjamin notes of this era: “The middle-class interior of the 1860s, with its giant sideboards heavy with woodcarving, the sunless corners where the palm stands, the bay window with its shielding balustrade, and those long corridors with the singing gas flame, proves fit only to house the corpse.” Benjamin’s idea was that the great writers anticipate the environments within which their narratives will take place; and that the golden age of logical-deductive detective fiction began with Edgar Allan Poe’s proto-Sherlock, C Auguste Dupin, at a time when these interiors had yet to crystallise. Dupin’s solution of the case in The Purloined Letter, hinges crucially on concealment—in escritoires, behind books on shelves—and what Benjamin points us towards is the integration into the domestic space of information: the detective’s method is to tell us, via an analysis of objects, about the homeowners’ taste.

This is not to suggest that the book in particular wasn’t viewed as a decorative object prior to the late 19th century. However, just as the size, weight and cost of early codices demanded dedicated furniture—such as flat reading tables and storage shelving—so the library itself remained a specialised room. By the time Virginia Woolf writes A Room of One’s Own, the invention of offset printing has made it possible for the lowliest Pooter to have a shelf of books in his living room (or drawing room as he’d probably style it); and while Woolf was just as afflicted by the snobberies of the era as others of her class, her ready assumption that all her readers will have a mental picture of a book-lined domestic interior readily to hand is suggestive of all the egalitarian, DIY shelves that are to come.

Woolf uses the recurrent image of retrieving books from shelves (or returning them) nine times in her essay; she not only pictures herself fetching down volumes, but also imagines her female literary subjects doing the same—these are, if you like, shelvings-within-shelving. It’s not only books that are so treated—jars are as well, and in proposing the necessary liberties for the nurturance of female literary talent, I believe Woolf is unconsciously integrating the female workplace of the time—the kitchen—with the locus of literary production. The omnipresence of the shelf for Woolf may also be a suppressed echo of the taunt commonly flung at bluestockings such as her at a time when marriage was still considered the apotheosis of women’s lives: You’ll be left on the shelf.

The arrival of the Victrola with its heavy 10-inch shellac discs requiring storage; the inception, shortly afterwards, of the radiogram as a distinct item of furniture; the spread of full-colour printing and the long-playing record after the Second World War—by the mid-20th century, the full integration of the decorative and the informational within the home, and the fullest expression of this symbiosis, is the multi-platform shelving unit. This is a combination of flat open surfaces, racks, containers and niches that can hold everything from pot plants to television sets, with a few books—possibly a set of leather-bound encyclopaedias—providing a weighty, traditional ballast. It is these shelving units that dominated the reception rooms of homes for the next four decades; sometimes they were denser, more modular and glass-fronted, pressed into the corners and pinioned to the walls—as carpets are to floors—so as to provide a total coverage. At other times the units became airily insubstantial, seemingly positioning their contents in mid-air, so creating a sort of net, from either side of which the guests at Abigail’s party could volley the shuttlecock of their pretensions. And when the shelf first, as it were, began to ail, it was these shelving units that started to appear on the pavements outside the houses and blocks of flats in my neighbourhood: pathetic outcasts, like objectified old Inuit, thrust from the tribe of chattels so its other members may move on into the future unencumbered.

This would’ve been, I think, in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but I was finding it difficult to let go of the shelf. My father, having emigrated to Australia 20 years previously, died in 1998, and although he left his books to the university where he taught, I went to the trouble of shipping a selection of his shelving all the way back to London; two enormous freestanding oaken bookshelves, and an equally vast rotating library shelf. It was at around this time that my wife cried: Ça suffit! My own principle when it came to the acquisition of books was: bring ’em on. Give me your tattered old Pelicans, your dog-eared copies of Rosemary Conley’s Hip and Thigh Diet, your bound back numbers of Popular Mechanics—for me there was no volume too lowly or unreadable to be unworthy of shelving. Her view, by contrast, was robustly practical: there isn’t any more space in the house to put up more shelves.

I understand where my own passionate involvement with the shelf originates—and it isn’t altogether in a love of literature. In our three-bedroom semi-detached family home mine was the back bedroom that had once been my much older half-brother’s, and when he went to university (and my other brother and I still shared a room), my father’s study. It had ended up as a repository of books and all sorts of other impedimenta, spread over a series of mismatched shelving units. I spent my time between the ages of eight and 17 either staring at these shelves or rearranging them: interspersing books with things and things with books. When I was little I set up complicated string pulley systems linking one shelf with another, so my toys could zip-wire from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man to John Updike’s Couples. I also lay on my bed and read and reread Alice in Wonderland, particularly taken by her long, safe fall down the shelf-lined well: “First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled ‘ORANGE MARMALADE,’ but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.”

In a very important sense, I think I’m still falling down that well: the shelves in the room where I’m writing this piece conform—at least in my imagination—to the ones Alice fell past: a higgledy-piggledy assemblage of objects, pictures and books overflowing from a series of wooden compartments and surfaces. It helps, I think, that the measurements I gave to the joiner who built the desk-cum-shelving-unit were woefully inadequate: the actual book shelves are too low for hardbacks and too deep for paperbacks, so they tend to be stacked horizontally two piles deep, or pushed to the back leaving plenty of room for clutter to accumulate at the front. The very idea that I should be able to put up a shelf myself is, of course, preposterous; and when I look back to the shelving of my youth, the intersection between bourgeois bricolage and bien pensant revolutionary dreaming is probably best exemplified by the pseudo-artisanal functionalism of brick-and-board shelving. By the same token, the Ikea flatpack is the three-dimensional analogue of a planned social democracy. But anyway, I digress—back to the clutter!

There are mobile phone chargers and bottles of mouthwash, tobacco pouches and azimuth compasses, reading glasses and plastic bags of tea; old photographs and postcards are propped up here and there, while glass paperweights, little metal skeletons and a small Tinguelyesque machine given to me by my children (that features a severed arm that hammers a bit of tin when you crank a handle) all have their place. I could go on—and on. To inventory the shelves would take days, and one time a celebrated mnemonist visited me here, and helped me learn the 43 (at the time) US presidents using as an aide memoire the objects ranged on a single shelf.

There has never really been any justification for the small clay bust of an ape, or the plaster one of Robert Schumann with a speech bubble attached to it reading “Take me to the bridge!” But now I’m beginning to realise there’s less and less requirement for the shelves at all. It may well be that the shelf is alive and well Chez Self, but the new kitchen one is the shape of shelves to come: in the future they may support either objets d’art, those that have use-value, or those that mix the two categories together, but what they won’t do is integrate these modes with the third and most crucial one: the informational.

The old shelving units in the road were followed in the early 2000s by still more pathetic cast-offs: CD towers and the occasional forlorn magazine rack. Neither the cassette nor the VHS tape ever really aspired to its own specialised shelving (except, it has to be said, in our shelf-mad domain, where we had a whole wall of VHS shelves built that have since been repurposed for DVDs and are now moribund); but the CD was adopted with sufficient zeal, and was of a significantly different format to require a whole range of alternative housings. Now they’re in the gutter, leaning lopsidedly, pathetic stained-wood menhirs marking the sites of the old religion of recorded sound, while overhead scuds the great crackling, emphatically digital cloud.

By rights there should be a fair number of bookshelves out there on the pavement as well, but while we do see these being discarded there doesn’t appear to be the same mortality rate. In part this must be because of the sheer social and cultural embedding of the codex: half a millennium as against the CD’s mere 20 years. In part it’s due to architectural considerations: the bookcases are often inbuilt—they’re bulkier, and will take more in the way of killing off. But there are also the haptic, tactile and other sensory aspects of the codex: for people who read, the book is something they have held on to for a very large portion of their lives; letting go of it will be a wrench. It’s been a wrench for me, but perhaps five years ago when my wife deemed that total shelf coverage had been reached in our fairly large house, she began a book pogrom. At first only duplicate titles and obvious clunkers were got rid of, but soon enough perfectly good books were being consigned to the oblivion of the local Mind charity shop.

Having fought hard against the purges, once they were underway I became, if not a willing accomplice, at any rate a functional one. I suspect I’m like quite a few people reading this piece: the onset of digital reading coincided with my own very analogue intimations of mortality. On the one hand there was the superabundance of books available via the web, on the other there was the chilly apprehension I had—looking about me at volumes I’d shelved a decade or more before, and promised myself annually that I’d read one day—that I already owned more than enough physical books to last me out three, four, even five score and 10. As for the delusion of legacy that had caused me to drag around aged copies of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and John Updike’s Couples from habitation to habitation for a lifetime, as if they were my own meagre version of a presidential library, well, my four children are all very lovely in their ways, but none of them is what I would call a voracious reader.

I remain a voracious reader, but again, like many of us, with the advent of bi-directional digital media, I’ve become more of snacker than a hearty literary eater. I still read codices, but a tendency to read multiple texts concurrently that was well-advanced before e-books, has now become near-pathological: I really am reading about 100 books at the same time. Of the two digital reading apps I have on my phone (yes, phone, it really doesn’t bother me), I favour the Kindle I now realise, because it doesn’t feature a skeuomorphic representation of a bookshelf. When you click on a book in the iBooks application the “volume” shoots towards you from this “shelf,” seemingly opening in midair to reveal the text. Every time it does this I give a little shudder—it’s as if I can feel angry out-of-work librarians walking over my grave; and I also shudder when I look about me at the overflowing shelves of my writing room, sensing that I have fully metamorphosed into an Alice who’s falling past them slow enough to pluck something from one, but that there’s really very little point, because after all: I’m falling.

I’m dying and the shelf is dying with me. As I say, I don’t doubt that shelves of the mosaic-encrusted bog-boy variety will continue to be put up: an exhibition this year at the Serpentine Gallery in London featured shelves of just this decorative kind. But the shelf as an omnipotential cultural platform is a thing of the past: the digital library is upon us, and whatever the nostalgic, the conservative and the downright reactionary Luddite may say, there’s no turning back a clock that doesn’t even have hands.

I do mourn the passing of the shelf, because I think that the spatial and aestheticised arrangement of the informational is a physical analogue of the canon itself. To reach up and get a volume down from a shelf is to see, smell and touch the form of collective understanding, an apprehension that has no equivalent in the virtual realm. The great Argentinean fabulist Jorge-Luis Borges anticipated the digitisation of all knowledge in his story The Library of Babel, which hypothesises a universe that is itself an illimitable library. Borges is quite particular about the physicality of the library. The infinite range of hexagonal galleries are described as follows: “Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase.” As to the shelves themselves: “There are five for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains 35 books of uniform format; each book is of 410 pages; each page, of 40 lines, each line, of some 80 letters which are black in colour. There are also letters on the spine of each book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say.”

This is information decoupled from anything but the most functionalist aesthetic, and ordered by no architectonic save that of the silicon chip. Needless to say the contents of the infinite volumes are randomised: a few make sense, but the great majority are gobbledegook. And of course, there’s nothing on this heaving multiplicity of shelves but information—no tobacco pouches, no little metal skeletons, and no propped up postcards. There is this consolation for those of us who are dying in tandem with the shelf: we will meet our fitting apotheosis, when the urn containing our ashes is carefully inserted into one of the columbarium’s shelves.