BOOKS DO FURNISH.

A Financial Times essay by Harry Eyres describes clearing out his parents’ home, saying “It may sound trite, but the house, and our lives in it, would not have been the same without books…. The rooms suddenly look diminished, denuded, uncomfortably bare”:

Books Do Furnish a Room is the oddly memorable title of one of the volumes in Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a sequence of novels about the goings-on among a group of toffs, literati and others before and after the second world war. The statement (made in the novel by a character called Bagshaw, the editor of a post-war literary journal) has an undertone of surprise: how can books furnish a room, when they have no obviously practical value, in the way that chairs and tables and sofas and curtains do?
I always rather took it for granted that books furnished a room. The only rooms in our house without books were the dining-room and the bathrooms. Otherwise there were books everywhere: in all the bedrooms (and one of the pleasures of sleeping in different bedrooms was finding books I hadn’t seen for decades, like old friends), in the drawing-room – where the books seemed more formal and unapproachable – and in the piano room-cum-office which became my parents’ comfortable winter snuggery.

I confess I raised my eyebrows when I got to “The only rooms in our house without books were the dining-room and the bathrooms”: can you really call yourself a book lover if there are any rooms without books? (I’ll never forget the day my younger grandson, exploring the bathroom, opened the bottom drawer to find, yes, a little stack of books—he let out a delighted “Ah!”) Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. I’ll never forget the day my younger grandson, exploring the bathroom, opened the bottom drawer to find, yes, a little stack of books—he let out a delighted “Ah!”
    Don’t they get mouldy?

  2. A Dance to the Music of Time is a fabulous 12-ology. It made my months, back when I read it. The volumes are now in cardboard boxes which do furnish one of my rooms.
    I wouldn’t mind reading them again, but I don’t feel a strong urge to do so, as I do and yield to with Middlemarch, Der Zauberberg, the Barchester novels and those of Thomas Bernhard. They paper my interior walls.
    What do you do, though, when a consigment of wallpaper vanishes on its way to your apartment ? In the last two months I have lost two books, probably on the train, that I had heavily commented in the margins and almost finished – the second volume of the Treatise of Human Nature, and a collection of essays by Plessner, among them Lachen und Weinen. It took 6 novels by Graham Greene to mop up the tears.

  3. A Catholic Sitzecke: The Honorary Consul, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The Third Man, The Comedians, Travels With My Aunt.

  4. I don’t shelve books in every room. But they do manage to get in all of them.

  5. An Amazon™ Kindle™ in every room…

  6. Don’t they get mouldy?
    Nope. Good ventilation!

  7. the 1950s ranch house I grew up in had a magazine/book rack built into the wall by the toilet. We made substantial use of it.

  8. Wouldn’t dream of having books in our bathroom. We do have some in both loos though.

  9. My son is in the process of buying a flat (apartment), and the very first action was to measure up for bookcases for every possible wall (thanks, Ikea). It is, as the agent (realtor) described it, “a compact flat”, but an extra storage room on the landing outside should take the overflow nicely…

  10. On the other hand, I read somewhere that to read while eating a meal is to insult both the book and the food. I think that was in reference to good meals, and I suppose one’s attention should be devoted to one or the other.
    I sometimes read while eating, but sometimes it isn’t practical.
    Some people read the newspaper, or do crossword puzzles while in the bathroom. I read the Reader’s Digest instead.

  11. Depends how big the house is. If you can say “bathrooms” plural and “all the bedrooms” and “sleeping in different bedrooms” and “piano-room-cum-office” working as a “winter snuggery” and you have a “drawing room” it may be there’s a lot of space to fill with books and you are in the happy position of never having (as some of us unfortunately have) to fillet your library.

  12. When I was in college in the 1980s there was a used book store in Durham, North Carolina, named Books Do Furnish a Room. Surprisingly, it still exists.

  13. dearie, doesn’t anyone ever go to the bathroom in your bathroom?

  14. “dearie, doesn’t anyone ever go to the bathroom in your bathroom?” Nope, we shower and shave there.

  15. dearie, doesn’t anyone ever go to the bathroom in your bathroom
    In Australia it is also relatively uncommon to have the toilet in the bathroom. The toilet has its own little room and the bathroom is exactly that, a bathroom. So ‘going to the bathroom’ is an idiom that must have originated overseas. The traditional Japanese home would also never put the toilet in the bathroom. Having the toilet in the bathroom is an arrangement I’ve got used to living overseas, but it took a while to overcome the distaste at having the two functions (one dirty and smelly, the other fresh and clean) in one room.

  16. Interesting.
    US real estate agents say (and sometimes get the rest of us saying) “half bath” for a room that has just toilet and sink? And sometimes “3/4 bath” for one with a shower (and toilet and sink) but no tub.
    It’s been years since I took a book to the bathtub with me (also years since I regularly used a tub rather than a shower) but I’ve done it.

  17. As I’ve said before, you don’t really understand North American English unless you understand the full implications of “Johnny went to the bathroom in his pants.”

  18. Johnny went to the bathroom in his pants
    Please clarify the implications!

  19. Oh, you mean he shat in his knickers…

  20. Bathrobe: Shat or pissed, either one, but it also means that he was a wee fella rather than, er, pissed.

  21. Having books in the dining-room is simply not done, at least not in proper New England families. People might leave books behind there occasionally, but having an actual book shelf in the dining-room makes no sense. Maybe in your summer house, ok. I was going to say no books in the mudroom either – but on second thought that might be where you keep maps, bird guides, AMC White Mountain Guide and maybe even your Farmers’ Almanac, depending on how big your mudroom is.

  22. Having books in the dining-room is simply not done, at least not in proper New England families.
    Well, of course not. We’re not talking about what’s done by proper New England families, we’re talking about what’s done by book-obsessed people with more books than can comfortably fit in appropriate places. I myself have hundreds of books down in the cellar; I know it’s not a great place for them, but they will not fit anywhere else.
    but having an actual book shelf in the dining-room makes no sense.
    You can tell me proper New England families don’t approve of it, but don’t tell me it makes no sense. If you’re in the dining room and you get into an argument about what was a number one hit in 1982, it makes sense to have the book right there.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    I have never had a reason to worry about what was being done in proper New England families, or even to learn about it until now, but learning about it will definitely not induce me to dismantle the wall-size book-shelving apparatus I have in what is officially my dining-room. Most of my non-professional, general interest books are on those shelves. The room is rarely used for eating unless I have guests, who can browse among my books before or after the meal. I rarely read while eating, or vice versa: I feel that those two activities are best enjoyed separately as they detract from each other.
    I would not have books in the bathroom except temporarily while I take a bath for comfort if I feel a cold or other misery coming. Apart from keeping the book from falling into the bath, there is the problem of keeping the water warm enough for the duration. I usually prefer to take a hot shower and then read as long as I want in a nice warm bed.

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    For that you just need some sort of device with internet access in your dining room so you can pull up http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:1982_record_charts and pick whichever link corresponds with what you want to contend you meant by number 1 hit. It’s more complicated types of chart history where hard-copy books are still helpful. (I think my paperbound Joel Whitburn volume listing every LP to make the Billboard charts from ’55 to ’85 is somewhere in the family room right now.)

  25. Well, of course not. We’re not talking about what’s done by proper New England families, we’re talking about what’s done by book-obsessed people with more books than can comfortably fit in appropriate places.
    To continue my tradition of contrarianism, a “proper New England family” can just as easily be “book-obsessed people” as not.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Hozho, in that case one would think that “proper New England families” would do their best to conceal the excentricity of their book-obsessed members and relegate the overflowing books to the attic, basement, garage, root cellar or whatever, as long as they are never found in or even near the dining room.

  27. There used to be a Danish restaurant in San Francisco named Einar’s, unfortunately long since closed, which featured a decor of books on every wall. Once when we were eating there, we had a discussion about the exact location of the Kiel Canal, so to settle the matter we asked the waitress for an atlas. She brought one over and we satisfied our curiosity. I wish there were more restaurants like that.
    I also have a vague memory of a restaurant in Toronto with a Sherlock Holmes theme that had books on the wall. I think it was called something like Baker Street. But I don’t remember if it was real books or just a mock-up. About all I can remember about the place was that they had particularly good trifle.

  28. one would think that “proper New England families” would do their best to conceal the excentricity of their book-obsessed members
    Au contraire. Most traditional New Englanders revel in their extensive book collections. But even the most book-obsessed should have the self-control to keep one room book free. More importantly – books collect dust, and dust and dining rooms aren’t a good mix.

  29. If you’re in the dining room and you get into an argument about what was a number one hit in 1982, it makes sense to have the book right there.
    Could be, sure. But what if you want to make a grand dramatic statement by stomping off to the living room and then returning triumphantly with the reference book in hand?

  30. but learning about it will definitely not induce me to dismantle the wall-size book-shelving apparatus I have in what is officially MY DINING ROOM…The room is rarely used for eating.
    Let’s give credit where credit is due. At least those good New England families use their living spaces for the purpose implicit to your terminology. If it is not used for eating, why do you call it a “dining” room? You can’t have your anti-bourgeoise cake and eat it too.

  31. Hozho, we can do whatever we like with our cake. How do you know that those good families dine in the dining room, or that they speak in the parlor, or that they draw in the drawing room, or that they bathe in the bathroom, or that they leave mud in the mudroom, or that they keep kitsch in the kitchen, or that they sell anything in the cellar? We can be reasonably sure that they are sometimes alive in the living room, but that’s not saying much.

  32. Books in dining rooms: that reminds me of how certain restaurants are decorated with books, or at least with what appear to be books. I suppose that there is a regular sub-industry of the used-book trade meeting this need.

  33. Drawing room is the place you withdraw to.

  34. The problem with a dining room nowadays is that it gets used twice a day, for about half an hour at a time. Meanwhile it’s taking up nearly a half of the living space. We eat in our kitchen, which I quite like, but for several years we’ve thought about building a dining room. It would be a double square in plan, with a 3-metre refectory table down the middle. There would be doors to the garden along one long wall, with floor-to-ceiling white bookcases running the length of the opposite wall. My wife & I both think that most of the time there would be stacks of books along the table. Except when we had guests, we would eat huddled down at one end. Just as a cell or mobile telephone is really a small camera you use occasionally to make phone calls, perhaps we’re thinking of an eat-in library more than a dining room.

  35. Drawing room is the place you withdraw to.
    I am so glad to have learned that! Funny that I never inquired.

  36. I will have to share the re-naming of a “dining room” to “eat-in library” with my Mum, whose furniture is occasionally visable under the piles of books that dominate her house! The dinner table at my parent’s house is rarely cleared of books (unless there is an invasion of children and grandchildren who require more than a few square centimetres of free space to eat at) and more often than not more books are dragged out of the dining room shelves to settle arguments or investigate an interesting idea that comes up during meals.

  37. Now, that’s my kind of house!

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Hozho: If it is not used for eating, why do you call it a “dining” room?
    I said “officially”, meaning according to how it would be defined by a real estate agent. I also have a “living room” in which I spend very little time. In addition to a wall of bookshelves the “dining room” has a huge table (occasionally used for eating with guests, but usally as a repository for books and papers) and a piano. Perhaps I should call it my “multi-purpose room”? The word is too long and too official. Since I live alone, I eat in my kitchen, which is also the brightest, most cheerful room.

  39. Our alleged dining-room table is currently the repository of my grandson’s clothes and books, at least those which do not fit in his chest of drawers, which stands next to it. In every sense, NYC apartments are a series of connected closets (one of which is a water closet, ha!)
    Originally, I believe the drawing room was specifically the room to which the ladies withdrew after dinner, leaving the gentlemen to their port, cigars, and pornography.

  40. Living room, drawing room, sitting room, family room, TV room, great room and additionally in England lounge and front room are all names for spaces with roughly the same communal function in a house, some just a bit tidier or messier than others. But when I’ve designed or renovated houses I’ve found that people are horrified if I call theirs by the wrong name. This may not be big news.

  41. I once got a stern scolding from my grandmother when I innocently called the room with the couches and television the TV room: it was supposed to be the library. So I asked how you could have a library without books, and got another scolding for that. (Eventually she installed bookshelves. And she did own books, but they had been in boxes in the basement since the last time she’d moved, a decade previously.)

  42. S/o, that’s a perfect example. I’ve had clients with libraries like that (very few bookshelves but an enormous, prominent TV). It’s similar to the bathroom, washroom, toilet, loo etc. euphemism. In the latter case the only honest description of its function (shithouse) is unacceptable in polite society. Kitchen aside, perhaps bedroom is the only room in the house where you have a fair description of its function from the name. The others (and even bedroom to some extent) are wishful thinking.

  43. On the other hand, I have thousands of books and nary a “library.”

  44. My parents’ library was one of the largest rooms in the house. It was built as a master bedroom, with the consequence that I usually walked through the library to reach the (AmE) bathroom.

  45. We have now, as if anyone cared but me, bought more drawers for Dorian’s clothes, so the table is now clear of them; but it still has his books in a row along one of the long edges, which stands against the wall.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    bathroom, etc as euphemisms:

    In French we (especially women) sometimes use the French-English hybrid pipi-room, especially for toilets in places such as restaurants, movie theaters, etc. The use of baby talk together with a foreign word seems to soften the impact of having to mention such places.

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