Let's hear it for the coffee-table book, the entertainment which asks nothing of you while offering so much! For example...The perfect time-filler:
The coffee-table book can be enjoyed alone or in company, on a sunny day or a rainy one, you can open it anywhere without having to remember where you'd gotten to, using it does not require a show of wit or talent, and it's always charged up.
|The centenary retrospective|
"Mmm... Francis Bacon. Cruelty and splendour..." That's Kate Winslet's character in the wickedly funny movie Carnage (from Yasmina Reza's play), a sort of modern day Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf set in trendy Brooklyn rather than in tweedy academia, coolly appraising the coffee-table books of her hostess. Who faux-casually responds that yes, she picked it up at the MoMA retrospective where she...
A status symbol:
At this year's Association of Book Crafts conference I heard someone moot that perhaps the era of the book as a status symbol is drawing to a close. Are we serious? No more books on coffee tables as a statement of who we are? Only decorative bowls and designer lamps? Or for most of us, phones, iPods, remote controls, DVD cases, and offers from your internet provider you haven't decided what to do about?
Clearly, what's needed here is an Occupy Coffee table movement. Battle cry: No coffee table to be without a coffee-table book!
What's that? You say you're tired of lugging around books which don't fit nicely into wine boxes with your other books, whenever you move house? Or finding they're too tall for your bookshelves when you want to put them away? And are you really going to get in enough views to make it worth the price tag? And what about when you splurged on a complete Michelangelo and then they went and cleaned the Sistine Chapel?
People, the answer is simple. Get your coffee-table books from the library! Enjoy them for a month or two, and exchange them for others. They won't cost you a cent, your selection will always be new and interesting, and you'll amaze visitors with your eclectic taste, not to mention sophistication.
Here are ten awe-inspiring, eye-catching coffee-table books which will give you an idea of the embarrassment of riches you can find nowadays in the library.
1 Wa: the essence of Japanese design by Rossella Menegazzo
If, like me, you find Japanese design amazing, you'll love this book from Phaidon Press, one of the most important "high-end" publishers on the visual arts. We feast on 250 objects, from wooden stools to paper chairs, from "skin" juice boxes to kimonos, in an exploration of Wa. What is Wa? Phaidon Press explains: "Wa – the Japanese character that refers not only to the concept of harmony and peace but to Japan and Japanese culture itself – has evolved into a term to describe that peculiar ‘Japaneseness’ which Western culture finds at the heart of Japanese beauty."
You can see a gallery of pictures from the book on the Phaidon Press website.
2. Egyptian Art by Émile Prisse d'Avennes
The first complete collection of the nineteenth-century French Orientalist (40 years passed in the Middle East, or Orient as it was then known), author and artist Émile Prisse d'Avennes's splendid illustrations of Egyptian architecture, sculpture, painting and industrial arts, in facsimile -- over 400 very large (44 cm) heavy matte pages. Echoing the hyperbolic format, the title page announces in three languages that the book was "Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen" ie the head of Taschen, a world-renowned publishing house in the area of art and design, described by the impeccable Mr Porter website thusly: "Its carefully bound books, on topics as diverse as vintage advertising and the work of Mr Helmut Newton, are invaluable additions to the stylish coffee table or library". FTW, Karen!
3. William Blake: The drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
If ancient art doesn't appeal to you, here's another chance to get the Taschen experience. Again a very large book (41 cm), this one with 14 fold-out spreads "to allow the most delicate of details to dazzle", as Taschen puts it, correctly -- I can vouch as I have the book at home right now. The book collects the 102 illustrations which Romantic poet and artist William Blake produced for Dante's masterwork in the last years of his life. Taschen concludes, again correctly, "This is a breathtaking encounter with two of the finest artistic talents in history".
You can see Blake's illustrations for The Divine Comedy file past to the sound of Ed Alleyne-Johnson's version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (it works!) in a short video created by Jane Burden Morris, the famous muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelites (that's she up in the corner), or perhaps a namesake of hers.
4. Proud too be weirrd by Ralph Steadman
A first person monograph by the British artist fired from The Times in the sixties because his work was "too seditious", best known to most for his close collaboration and friendship with Hunter S. Thompson (eg the crazed, splattered-ink illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
You can see some of the illustrations collected in Proud too be weirrd on the AMMO (American Modern) Books website, including the wonderful two-page spread which opens the book (I have this book at home too), which reads "The Annual All of Us Are Animals, But Some of Us Wear Glasses and There is Always One Who Doesn't Fit In Festival of Culture" (below).
5. Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings
Putting my money where my mouth is, arguing that "coffee-table book" does not have to be a disparaging term for a book which is all appearance and no substance, I'm declaring this wonderful creation by cartoonist Chris Ware, which has been compared to Ulysses and Joseph Cornell's boxes, a coffee-table book. A coffee-table comics book. Yes, it's technically (and famously, in the world of comics) a box containing (I quote from the Auckland Libraries catalogue record) 1 hardcover vol., 32 cm.; 1 hardcover vol., 24 cm.; 1 newspaper, 56 cm.; 1 booklet, 31 cm.; 2 booklets, 28 cm.; 1 booklet, 20 cm.; 1 booklet, 8 x 25 cm.; 5 printed sheets, ranging in size from 71 x 9 cm. to 56 x 81 cm., all folded; and 1 folded board, 41 x 107 cm., folded to 41 x 27 cm." but it is definitely a book, and one which has been residing on my coffee table this month, and in which, like coffee-table books, I've been finding something new and intriguing every time I turn my attention to it. "All components are unpaged and are chiefly col. illustrations. None have titles." we are told. There is no order to the experience, in other words; the stories are there for you to build, in three dimensions as in the imagination jumbled together, like remembered dreams.
7. The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz
8. Concrete edited by William Hall
I knew no list of coffee-table books could be complete without a book involving buildings, but wanted something a little bit different. Eureka! It's Concrete! "Presents a visual exploration of the aesthetics of concrete architecture through 180 structures from ancient Rome to the present day. Includes innovative and inspirational projects from monuments and churches to stations and cultural spaces, by some of the best architects of the last 100 years. Concrete is a beautiful and informative visual exploration of a material often considered dull and cold but actually full of spectacular potential" says the blurb.
9. Don Martin: Three decades of his greatest works
A shining light of my childhood. As soon as my sisters and I would get our allowances, we would head down to our neighborhood store to buy candy (Necco Wafers or Rolos) and the latest issue of Mad magazine. That's how I remember it anyway, although I realise that since our allowances were paid weekly, and Mad was a monthly, we couldn't have bought it every time. But that was the idea, and when Mad wasn't in, we went home with just candy. There wasn't a second choice for magazine. I'm glad to see that the series this book appears in is called "Mad's Greatest Artists", because this Don Martin certainly was. He was also "Mad's Maddest Artist", a title he alone held. "Inside are over 200 of Martin's funniest and zaniest works from his lengthy career, along with every 'GOOSH,' ' SPROING' and 'POIT' that made his cartoons great", promises the publisher.
10. The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren
Do you know what PostSecret is? In the words of its creator, Frank Warren, "PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard". Warren posts the cards, often adorned with expressive artwork as an adjunct to the secret, on the PostSecret website, as well as reproducing them in a series of books, of which this is the latest, so new that as of today, it hasn't even arrived in the library yet, though you can already put yourself on the wait list for it. Reading the postcards was not at all like what I expected. There is no mythologising, no banality, no voyeurism. The flow of secrets has something profound and historical about it, almost holy, as if it were some sort of Book of Hours, whose illuminations are the inventive artwork, as in the original, but also flashes of insight into the human spirit.
Some people tweet their secrets at @postsecret. Here's a secret tweeted today: