Peter York: The way we live now - Cover stories

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The Independent Online

Books Do Furnish a Room – if any line summed up just how equivocal upper-class people used to feel about intellectuals, it's that wonderful Anthony Powell title. The library was one more essential in the parade of rooms in a big 18th-century house – and part of the required kit ever afterwards. The important thing was to have the books, not actually read them. So there was a time when a certain kind of Pimlico book dealer made a respectable living selling pretty sets of leather-bound books by the yard. The elegance of the shelves was the point. Ideally there'd be 200 years' worth of something, however gloriously boring (the family's tenant records, whatever).

Until recently, no country pad could pass muster without some kind of book room. If possible it'd be a dedicated place with pretty desk – tooled green leather top – and "country Chippendale" chair. If the little big house didn't stretch to that, the answer was the library dining room, where the books would make a nice backdrop for the best possible display of 18th-century silver.

So different from the houses of the old urban intelligentsia, where books, tools of their trade, flowed through the house on everything from plain white-painted shelves to orange boxes. The sitting room was a book room, the hall and half landing too. Drifts of books barred the way to bed. Here, the snobby deliciousness of hand-coloured plates of birds was trivial compared to the turbulent ideas in, say, a Gollancz yellow-jacketed political tract or crucial orange Penguin.

But decorators never quite saw the point of massing books. Books brought colour to a room and filled it up, but shelves bearing just one thing struck them as a decorative display opportunity tragically lost. They pioneered the artfully artless mix of "personal" collections that combined books with photographs, china, old ethnic bits and all the welcome-to-my-world rest of it. Since decorators only ever buy picture books of the Morocco Style variety, they saw this as a win-win move. But deep bookists keep on finding things to like and collect, from lurid Fifties crime paperbacks with their marvellous covers to the Damien Hirst pop-up books of the Nineties. And modern coffee-table books with bright laminated covers set up a rhythm of their own.

This long, narrow, corridor-ish space has been redeemed by a stretch of bookshelves. But they're not stuffed to the gills with books: it's completely pick-and-mix. Could the prettying up of bookshelves be to sugar the pill for children? I love the story of that most middle-class of pop stars, David Gilmour, imposing a TV ban on his three youngest children, making them read more. Gilmour's 12-year-old son, Joe, apparently asked for bookshelves this Christmas.