“It is a spectator sport to look at someone else’s books, if not an act of voyeurism or armchair psychology,” wrote Henry Petroski in “The Book on the Bookshelf.”
Yet when the books don’t belong to an individual, but rather to a hotel or a bar, it is not armchair psychology – it is an invitation to a chance encounter. Which book might catch your eye from the shelves at the Wine Library at the B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa in Zurich, where guests can browse some 33,000 books with a glass of white in hand? What books might be in your room in the Library Hotel in New York, where each floor celebrates one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and a reading room is open 24 hours? Which volume will be brought to your table at the Gryphon, a cafe in Savannah, Ga., where diners receive their bill tucked inside the pages of a book? Might any of these books change your trip, your mind, your life?
Never mind that people are increasingly reading books on tablets and smartphones: Hotels, bars and restaurants around the world have made bound books a centerpiece of their themes and décor, just as home decorators have long anchored rooms with books displayed in any number of ways – by color, subject, height, chronology, spines that face out or in, stacked beside a bed, or made into a coffee table.
None of this is new. Rather, decorating with books is positively ancient.
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“You will find that Tyrannio has made a wonderfully good arrangement of my books,” the Roman scholar Cicero, who was born in 106 B.C., wrote to his friend Atticus. “Moreover,” he said in a subsequent letter, “since Tyrannio has arranged my books for me, my house seems to have had a soul added to it.”
Some hotels decorate with elaborate bookshelves; some with stacks of coffee-table books. Others lean a few novels on a shelf, or make a vignette with an objet d’art. The arrangements that have soul are obvious to any book lover; the books are chosen and displayed so as to encourage a guest to crack one open, to reach for the book that seems to whisper, “I’ve been waiting for you to come along.”
Oregon has several such spots, such as the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, where rooms are separated into Best Sellers, Classic and Novels, and there’s a library but no Wi-Fi or television in the rooms. There’s also the Heathman Hotel in Portland, which, with more than 2,700 books, has one of the largest autographed libraries in the world in partnership with Powell’s Books, the country’s largest independent bookstore.
Yet a hotel need not have a library to offer guests entertaining, meaningful or simply practical books. At the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok last summer, I was grateful for the small pile of hardcovers about the city that were in my room. This winter, the Royalton New York is offering a “Fireside package” that includes an in-room library (courtesy of the McNally Jackson independent bookshop) with novels and short stories, such as the “Complete Stories of Truman Capote” and Teresa Carpenter’s “New York Diaries.”
Of course, some book décor is just for show. At the Eurostars Book Hotel in Munich, where each floor is dedicated to a literary genre, a giant sculpture of an open book is on the wall behind the front desk. At the dark Library bar at the NoMad Hotel in New York, only guests of the hotel can lounge amid the stacks after a certain hour.
These days, it isn’t necessarily clear what’s meant for looking and what’s meant for reading, let alone buying. I walked by a boutique for the French fashion label Sonia Rykiel and mistook it for a bookshop, thanks to walls lined top-to-bottom with books.
For years, people have decorated by buying books by the foot or in bulk. One can buy hollow books too: boxes made to look like books with compartments for stashing cash or valuables, like a trio of travel-themed volumes with the word “Paris” on the spines for $35 (usually $39) a set at Homedecorators.com.
Are displays of books a way to signify knowledge, as books in still-life paintings did (and digital bookshelves on Facebook do today)? After all, Marie Kondo, the author of the best-selling decluttering bible, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” wrote: “People with large book collections are almost always diligent learners.” Or are some of them posing?
Consider what Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard and the author of “Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books,” once wrote in The New York Times: “More than a millennium before print, Seneca criticized ‘those who displayed scrolls with decorated knobs and colored labels rather than reading them,’ noting, ‘It is in the homes of the idlest men that you find the biggest libraries.’ ”
In his book “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You,” Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, explains that while bookcases are excellent snooping sites, he thinks the size of the book collection is less important than its variation. A varied book collection, he said, speaks to a person’s unconventionality and openness to experiences.
“The books on someone’s shelf capture the person’s general intellectual style and outlook,” he wrote. “People high on openness tend to enjoy abstract thought and to be broad-minded, creative, imaginative and philosophical.”
Soul or no soul, it’s a fine thing to travel the world and encounter books in unexpected places. There is a certain comfort in being greeted by a book (or several thousand) while checking into a hotel or settling down for a drink. Whether executed to one’s taste or not, whether acquired in bulk or one by one, book décor seems to say: Ideas are free and welcome here. And with the turn of a page, the traveler is off on a journey within the journey.