Issue 140: 2018 02 08: Coffee Table Books

08 February 2018

Coffee Table Books

Fire and Fury.

By Chin Chin

For Christmas I received a nice new Kindle.  Every book, every page, now available in black and white with the font pleasantly readable, it is a pleasure to use.  No need to buy any more hard copies.  No need to wait in for books to be delivered by post.  All is for the best in this best of all digital worlds.  At least that is the theory.

Reality is a little different because I don’t just buy books in order to read them.  They serve another purpose as well.  No, not just as a support for that broken leg of the coffee table; nor as a missile to launch at the neighbour’s cat when it slips in through the open window in the hope of licking the butter.  Do you think I’m the sort of Philistine who judges a book by its physical size?  No, I mean a higher purpose than that.  A good book confers status in a way in which Kindle, however ostentatiously displayed, does not.

So what do you need?  A little Descartes here.  A leather bound Iliad there.  Both in the original, of course, a translation would give quite the wrong impression.  “Quite a polymath our Mr Chin,” I hear visitors murmuring as they leave the house, and I break into their thoughts with a feral grunting noise.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that” says one of them, causing me to start slightly with the air of one suddenly recalling where here is.

“Oh, perhaps you have never been to Kazakhstan,” I reply.  Nor have I actually, which is why I cannot be sure that the feral grunting noise is not in fact a Kazak way of saying farewell.

Before the days of Kindle, filling your bookshelves with the classics left you with a problem.  Where to put the books you actually wanted to read?  The trashy novels, the soft porn, the penny dreadfuls.  There just wasn’t room for them on the shelves and in any case, the good impression given by a well-worn volume of The Prince would be quite lost if it was sandwiched between Holiday Babes on the right and Bedroom Capers on the left. “Don’t you know the works of Machiavelli’s friends?” It maybe worth a try, but it will hardly fool the cognoscenti, particularly when they see that the other two books were written by somebody called “Hot Susie”, not a common fifteenth century Florentine name.

No, the better course was to have all your books rebound in classical binding, although it did leave a problem remembering which was which.  Some were fairly obvious.  Buying Sex In Italy might be bound as The Merchant of Venice and you could put something pretty tawdry under a cover bearing the title Moby Dick. Still, there was plenty of room for confusion too.

Fortunately, you do not have to do all that anymore because you can put the books you will actually read on the Kindle and buy the leather bound libraries of those who have gone entirely electronic by the yard at very decent prices.  What still requires attention, however, is the coffee table book, a special volume deliberately chosen to impress guests and to stand up at least to casual scrutiny .

Coffee table books go through fashions.  Once upon a time it was art books designed to look expensive and show off their owners’ discrimination in artistic matters.  Then there was the intellectual period when everyone had a copy of A Brief History Of Time with the odd flag and annotation designed to show that they had got beyond chapter 7.  Once it became clear that everyone who claimed to have got past chapter 7 was a liar and a fraud, the fashion changed again and now it is political books which mark the intellectual, the current vogue being for political books about US politics.  Last week I had some fairly gullible friends coming to tea so I popped into the bookseller for an American political book.“What should I buy?” I asked him.

Actually it turned out there is quite a range.  America has presidents in the way that we have prime ministers and each of them is the subject of several “lives”.  I listened bemused as the bookseller ran through the list.

“What period are you looking for?” he asked, seeing my startled expression.

“Oh, the latest” I replied.  Who, after all, wants to be politically out of date?

Fire and Fury it is then,” and an hour or so later, a nice new hardback volume sat on my coffee table.  The next step was to make it look as if I had read it, so I took a pad of sticky flags and began to place them at random throughout the text.  A couple of pencil exclamation marks in the margin added to the impression and I bent the book back so that it would fall open where I had put them.

It was while I was doing this that my eye fell on a couple of paragraphs and I began to read.  It was a compelling story.  This man from nowhere, hardly able to speak and with no real knowledge about anything, miraculously became the President of the United States.  Then he used (or levered off, as they say in the States) his unpredictable behaviour to keep everyone dancing about and flattering him.  His court was full of pantomime villains.  There was Bannon from the extreme right and the Kushners from the incompetent left, hating each other and vying for Trumps affections.  There was the sinister Pence ready to take over if it all went pear-shaped and lots of generals, communications experts, Russians and the Chinese, all doffing their caps at Trump’s antics while he wafted around like a mediaeval potentate playing one off against the others.  What a man!  What a life!  It only required a bungabunga party to complete the picture.  A great read!  There was one trouble, though.  I had been duped by the bookseller. It was far too extraordinary to be true.  Clearly a work of fiction, and by convention only books based on fact are placed on the better sort of coffee table.


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