It’s long been said that books furnish a room, but the maxim ended there. I guess no one ever mentioned what direction those books should face when they do it?
The social media chattering classes have spent the past few days rolling their eyes at #backwardsbooks, an Instagram-perfect interior design trend that takes the idea that books are pretty to look at and flips it 180 degrees. See, their unadorned pages, actually, can be pleasingly neutral and minimalistic when shelved in a row. Sites like Flavorwire and Architectural Digest have covered and in some cases scoffed at the pages-out movement, with a tweet from Flavorwire in particular becoming choice fodder for dunkage.
The critics are right: This is a very dumb way to store your books. Not only will it make specific books hard to find on the off chance you want to, you know, read one, but it also reframes books not as the vessels of information and narrative they are but as something purely decorative. It’s as bad as that time Lauren Conrad told her fans to destroy books and called it crafting. To take the John Waters quote a step further, by all means, if you go home with somebody, and they have backward books, don’t fuck ’em!
But backward books also makes a sick kind of sense. The trend has gained currency on Instagram and Pinterest, visual-first platforms that are part and parcel of an increasingly digital culture where much of how we arrange our lives has a performative element to it. In a time when half the stuff we do, we only do for the ’gram, what’s so different about turning our books in the other direction? Books were already to some extent a fetish object on Instagram—people post their covers as accessories, to show off how literary their lives are. In fact, this principle is central to the revived Book of the Month Club’s marketing plan, which acknowledges that books makes for a pretty feed. In truth, many of us don’t need physical books anymore now that we have e-books, and—with apologies to the “I read books because they’re more tactile” crowd—much of the reason they’ve stuck around anyway is that people like to show them off. Even though I happen to think the covers are more attractive than the inners, it’s sad but true: Displaying only your yellowing pages isn’t that much more shallow than ’gramming a book cover next to your pour-over.
If you think these backward books are ghastly, don’t hate the individual decorators; hate the digital swamp we’ve created.