The Rise of the Coffee Table Book

Created date

February 17th, 2012

In 1820, naturalist John James Audubon announced his intention to paint a likeness of every bird in North America. He set out for Philadelphia and New York in search of financiers who would back his bold endeavor to publish paintings of his feathered friends in book form, which Audubon planned to issue in installments on a subscription basis. By 1838, the ambitious artist had completed roughly 200 four-volume sets of illustrations called The Birds of America. Each magnificently hand-colored collection sold for about $1,000 today s equivalent of more than $20,000. These books doubtless reserved for the wealthy were themselves works of art intended as much for display as they were for consumption. Audubon had given the world one of its earliest examples of illustrated coffee table books.

Purely for display

Still, the concept of a book solely for the purpose of display predates Audubon by over two centuries. As early as 1580, essayist Michel de Montaigne complained that his workUpon Some Verses of Virgil would only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window... In 1759, Laurence Sterne echoed a similar sentiment in his multi-volume novelThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,writing: As my life and opinions are likely to make some noise in the world, no less read than the Pilgrim s Progress itself and, in the end, prove the very thing Montaigne dreaded his Essays should turn out a book for a parlor window.

Accessible to the masses

Contrary to their concerns, however, display books became sought-after items in the latter half of the 19th century, due in large part to a series of social and technological changes. According to Dan Gregory, an expert with the New Jersey-based rare books dealer Between the Covers, books in general became more accessible thanks to developments in education and printing. Books were luxury items until the 1870s, when mechanized printing really took effect, he explains. A simpler, cheaper production process, combined with widespread literacy, made books something that the masses were able to enjoy. In turn, the idea of decorating the home with books became a practice that everyday readers could actually entertain. And entertain it they did. The Victorians dove into display books with gusto. Gift books, for instance, were popular, over-sized volumes filled with artwork and poetry, while breakthroughs in photographic reproduction made possible the publication of chilling images from the Civil War in books like Rossiter Johnson s 1894 classicCampfires and Battlefields. The next big development came around the mid-1900s with advances in offset lithography printing, which allowed for the high-quality reproduction of color artwork on glossy pages. The market for coffee table books exploded once printers were able to reproduce color images on pages that could be bound directly into books, says Gregory. Now, it was possible to give readers faithful representations of nature, art, and history, taking them to places that were geographically and temporally out of reach.

Reflections of self

As Gregory points out, coffee table books became marks of sophistication outlets through which people could make personal statements about themselves. To be sure, coffee table books are a wonderful way for readers to enjoy great works of art and photography in their home, but that s not their only purpose, he notes. By leaving a book out on your table for all to see, you re putting yourself out there. You re saying, This is what I like, and This is what I know, and there s no other type of book that can do that. Gregory says that this fact alone will keep coffee table books around for a long time, saving them from the digital peril of encroaching e-readers such as the Kindle and the Nook. Unlike text-based books, coffee table tomes are as beautiful to behold from a distance as they are to thumb through in your lap. If and when we do crack the spine on a book of Ansel Adams s photography, the collections of the Louvre, or the many magazine covers of Norman Rockwell, we want to experience them on sprawling, glossy pages, not a small, rectangular LCD screen. Much has changed since Montaigne s era. The public exposure that he saw as an insult to his work is, today, an enduring literary fashion.