Opinion: the history of book storage is not as straightforward as you might think 

I am rearranging my library. Yes, I am.

The scene described at the outset of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, "Unpacking My Library," arose from his peripatetic lifestyle, not from a bout of home décor. We join the German writer as he unpacks crates of books which have been sealed for two years and witness his meandering thoughts on book collecting, all prompted by the stacks of volumes awaiting their places on the shelves, "not yet touched by the mild boredom of order." 

An entirely different motivation has prompted a new trend in book arrangement which has gained traction on social media in recent months, and received perplexed newspaper coverage in the last week: the backwards book. The origin of the craze, widely interpreted as yet another sign of humanity’s monumental folly and impending demise, has been traced to an Instagram post by design blog Apartment Therapy, which counselled afflicted readers whose books did not match their décor: "don't fret. The incredibly easy solution? Flip them for a perfectly coordinated look."

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The comments on the post - which begin with "you monsters" and continue in that fashion - represent the general thrust of the internet’s response as the trend has gathered momentum and social media has become clogged with images of books’ protruding fore-edges.

Why such anger? There are two main reasons. First of all, the practical: a shelf of reversed spines presents an obvious challenge to finding any book. The second, graver reason relates to the cultural capital of the book, which remains instinctive and strong even in the digital age. Anyone who uses books for decorative purposes, we imagine, must be foolish, shallow or illiterate. The phenomenon is not new as evidenced by the many book-filled nooks of every faux-Irish pub or the opportunity to buy books by the metre.

Book abuse of this kind has a long history of aggravating the bookish: poet Robert Southey complained of the Regency-period trend of treating books as "rather fashionable articles of furniture" and reported scornfully of an acquaintance "who gives his bookseller no other instructions than the width of his shelves." More recently, filmmaker John Waters issued a severe caution against sleeping with a person whose house contains no books.

"The cultural capital of the book remains instinctive and strong even in the digital age"

What, then, is the appropriate response to a person whose books are displayed spine inwards? At least, the method is a definitive means of imposing uniform order on the chaos inherent in any individual’s collection of books. What might be more surprising is that this apparently unbearable token of vacuous chic has the firm weight of history behind it. There was an identical convention for displaying books in this manner in the Renaissance period, though this may not have been the precedent that Apartment Therapy had in mind.

Bookshelves began to appear in libraries in the 16th century, superseding the unsatisfactory system of the lectern adopted from monasteries. Book production had been hastened by the recent invention of the printing press, and placing books flat and side-by-side on a sloping lectern was an uneconomical use of space. Thus, the idea of storing books vertically on bookcases became common in libraries. At this point, a bookcase was frequently known as a press - a fact which will surely be appreciated by the Irish, whose continued use of the word as a synonym for cupboard is often met with blank stares in international company.

But this in itself does not explain why the books in such institutions would be customarily stored with the spine inwards. The reason for this was twofold: first, the practice of adding the title and author’s name to the spine of a book did not begin in earnest until the mid-16th century and was not common until the 17th century. If a book’s spine held no information, there was no reason for it to be seen. Moreover, the spine of the book was viewed as its "back": a means of holding the leaves together that was functional, not presentable.

What, then, is the appropriate response to a person whose books are displayed spine inwards?

The second, less familiar reason, is that these books would ordinarily be chained to their bookcase and the best location for a chain to be attached to a vertical book was opposite the spine, at the cover’s fore-edge. Chaining was a development that accompanied the medieval and middle-ages system of displaying books on lecterns, which itself superseded the practice of keeping books in closed chests called armaria. The purpose of the iron chain was to ensure that the book was not removed from the lectern where it was intended to be read. Though chains began to be abandoned as a mean of securing books at Cambridge libraries after 1626, many Oxford libraries and colleges preserved their use well into the eighteenth century: the last college to unchain its books was Magdalen in 1799.

But the problem of finding a particular book without any identifying marks attached - also voiced by detractors of the current specimen of #BackwardsBooks - remained. To resolve this, chained libraries often posted a "table of contents" on the end of the bookcase, as in the library of Hereford Cathedral, which to this day preserves its fifteen hundred volumes chained to their seventeenth century book presses.

Dr Rosemary Firman, librarian of Hereford Cathedral, finishes cleaning historic manuscripts and books in the cathedral's Chained Library. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Even when the practice of adding the title and author name to the spine of a book was adopted, a period of around a century followed where old books were shelved with their fore-edges out and new books with their spines on view—either segregated or commingled on the shelves. And the habit was preserved for longer periods, in some cases: books in the library of El Escorial, the historical residence of the King of Spain, were still shelved with their fore-edges out in the late twentieth century.

However, the practice largely disappeared in the hundred or so years after the mid-17th century. Two editions of a textbook by Czech theologian, John Amos Comenius, illustrate the change to the modern convention. Orbis Sensualium Pictus, first published in 1658, featured an illustration of a bookseller’s shop where books were shelved with their fore-edges facing out. However, in an edition of the book published in 1777, the spines of the books on the shop’s shelves are visible in an updated illustration.

A broader history of the storage of books can be found in Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf (to which this article in indebted). Aside from providing authority for the unwitting emulators of Renaissance style in today’s interior design, the book reflects on questions about storage that are, literally, immaterial in our digital age. A committed bibliophile, Petroski concludes his book with an appendix which describes 25 separate systems for organising a library: from the mundane order by title or by author name to more esoterically by enjoyment or by sentimental value. One of the last offers advice to a married couple who are ready to make that altogether more serious commitment: intermingling their books.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ