Shelf life: The private libraries of the style set

Books make a room – and speak volumes about their owner.
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The Independent Culture

Cicero's ideal room was a library in a garden. Montaigne dreamt of having a literary den in an attic. Anthony Powell informed the world that books do furnish a room – but the Victorian, Reverend Sydney Smith, got there first when he said, "No furniture so charming as books". In the fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, the heroine's dream of perfection isn't romance, it's a big library. "When I step into this library," wrote the 17th-century French diarist Marie de Sevigne, "I cannot understand why I ever step out of it..."

The human love affair with books en masse is ancient and profound. The possession of a collection of volumes has long been thought an emblem of sophistication and learning, evidence of its owner's civilised commitment to sitting still and meditating on words.

It's when you put up some shelves and display the books on your living room wall that the trouble starts. When I had my first flat in London, and proudly displayed my huge collection of literary paperbacks – from Amis to Zola – that I'd accumulated over the years, low-life visitors would scan the shelves and ask: "All these books – you read 'em?" I would have to answer that, well no, I hadn't, but I looked forward to doing so one day. It's hard not to sound pretentious when saying such a thing. People could be forgiven for thinking I had scanned the pages of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and bought the lot, out of cultural pressure rather than a love of literature. ("Faulkner? Yup, I've got a few of them. Virginia Woolf? I think there's a couple on the bottom shelf. Shakespeare? Yeah, I've got three yards of Shakespeare plays. No, of course I haven't actually read any of them...")

My children sometimes mock me for referring to my (now somewhat larger) shelves of books as a "library" rather than a bookcase, as though I were giving myself pipe-smoking-bookman airs. But the difference between the terms is crucial. What you're displaying on the wall is more than just the books you impulse-bought on certain afternoons over the past few years, plus some unwanted "classics" which were Christmas gifts from your book-group-attending aunt. What you're displaying is a collection of the books which had an impact on you when younger – an impact you'd like to experience again one day – or books that have had an impact on the world and that you bought because you wanted to see why. Your library should tell people about you – your taste for the gothic, the comic, the scientific, the philosophic, the romantic and the murderous – rather than exist as a random aggregation of ageing bestsellers.

roland beaufre, a World of Interiors photographer, and Dominique Dupuich, a French style journalist, have put together a handsome coffee-table book devoted to private libraries. It's called Living with Books, a title that implies a slightly difficult relationship or burdensome condition, as in Living with Newts or Living with Sciatica, but the pictures are fascinating. Some "libraries" in these pages resemble shrines, or the altars of sinister religious movements; others occupy a space hardly above the level of storage. Some feature panelled bookcases designed by master craftsmen, seductively lit with discreet theatre lamps; others lie higgledy-piggledy on metal shelving that could have come from Ikea.

Writers' libraries, the authors claim, come in two types: one is a boho creative studio, whose bookshelves overflow with ornaments and mementoes, in which additional books are piled up on the floor and mantelpiece; the other is the formal Victorian study of the ageing literary man with its antique volumes neatly arrayed on oak shelving. Paul Bowles, the Tangier-based author of The Sheltering Sky, fits the former description – his modest library is studded with bits of pottery from Mexico and Morocco. But it takes a Parisian designer called Hubert de Vinols to construct a perfect example of the latter in the reading-room of his Auvergne chateau – with a range of shelves and spines so glowingly perfect, it would, paradoxically, dissuade anyone from touching one of them, let alone reading it.

The authors divide their subjects into eight categories: Collectors, Designers, Interior Designers, Writers, Fashion Designers, Artists, Journalists, and Grand Houses. Each category is mined for its revelations of the personality behind the shelves. Laure Welfing, a French designer, stands out for her gloriously louche library with its classical columns, the regulated chaos of the shelves, the wonderful selection of knick-knacks (crucifix, globe, reading stand, mini-vases) and the crystal chandelier in the shape of a sailing ship that hangs overhead, ready to transport the reader. It contrasts well with the library in Sir Terence Conran's London home: the brains behind Habitat favours a minimalist, starkly symmetrical approach to shelving, and indeed to books – most of which are to be found on the table.

The shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik, has been at the forefront of pedal fashion for decades, but the library at his home in Bath is intriguingly old-fashioned. You can practically feel the dust rising from the old gentleman's-club armchair under its flannel covering. The studded leather screen that hides the collection of mostly dog-eared hardbacks hints at a more secretive era, while the twin neoclassical heads have an ancient drama of their own. It's not a setting in which to read anything trivial.

The dress designer, Sonia Rykiel, favours a much more precise and ladylike approach. The walls behind her bookshelves are black, as is her carpet. Her unusually tiny books stand like children – some tautly upright, some daring to slump sideways – while her fussy collection of mignonne glass and silverware hints at a measure of control-freakery. You wouldn't confuse her library with that of Georgina Goodman, whose London flat features a bookcase that doubles as a clothes-rail – one side books, the other side, clothes. It's nice to find a girl who uses a Union Jack skirt-press and a brace of wine-merchant delivery boxes as items of furniture. The stylist, Jose Levy, shows how to give a tiny, minimalist flat a lot of style and a busy atmosphere by fitting a curve of simple white shelves and adding a log-effect electric fire. Genvieve Lethu, the designer, shows off her "Bookworm" bookshelf designed by Ron Arad, which writhes all over the wall in its serpentine way, with the books apparently clinging on for dear life.

These design choices inevitably seem a little girlish and fluffy alongside the libraries of serious collectors. Like Jean-Claude Moineau, the art historian, whose archive of the history of modern art resembles a public library. It's a former mechanic's workshop, housing 10kms of shelves standing in serried ranks, like the "stacks" in the London Library. And it still isn't enough to contain all his books. As other photographs show, Moineau's library spills over into every other bit of his apartment, even displacing his clothes.

Perhaps the daddy of them all is the "Library of Babel", belonging to Jose Alvarez, founder of the Editions du Regard publishing house. It takes up every inch of wall space in a large drawing room, then proceeds up the stairs to a second, smaller gallery which overhangs the room. The books are discreetly lit with teeny articulated brass lamps, while small framed pictures dot the shelves. The most attractive thing about it is perhaps the six oblong windows which frame the books at one end, allowing natural light to flood the room. A library is traditionally thought of as a place where the curtains remain drawn and the atmosphere is hushed and sombre. Alvarez shows that a library can express enlightenment rather than gloom. When asked what his perfect library would be like, he replied, "Mine, but 10 times larger".

The only unsatisfactory thing about these photographs is their apparent lack of interest in the actual books. You just know that, if you happened to be standing in any of these rooms, you would hasten to the shelves to inspect the titles and contents, and try to infer from them the personality of their owner. But Beaufre and Dupuich show no special interest in the actual titles – for them, books are merely components in appealing shapes and colours, random units that work well when presented in profusion. As books become more and more redundant, as the Kindle, the iPad and the Sony Reader become the future of reading, and the hardback book becomes a quaint and charming throwback to a less technologically streamlined era, perhaps libraries will be seen as primarily design statements rather than repositories of wisdom, knowledge, entertainment and style. A triumph for the palace of design, if a sad day for the genuine bookworm.

'Living with Books', by Dominique Dupuich and Roland Beaufre, Thames & Hudson, £22.50