Evelyn Eman Delmar

From the Archives: Of Coffee Tables and Books

Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Of Coffee Tables and Books from November 20, 2014 because coffee table books make wonderful gifts for special Mothers and Fathers – and the history of coffee table books makes for interesting conversation!

My husband used to chide me when I referred to the low, square-shaped table in our living room as a coffee table. “The (low rectangular) table in our family room is a coffee table,” he would say. “A square table is a cocktail table.” Well, the joke is on him. Purists say that a cocktail table can be square or round; a coffee table is round or oval. Whatever you call the low table you place in front of your sofa, if you keep a large, attractive, illustrated book on it to look at casually or inspire conversation with guests, it is a coffee table book.

The concept of books meant for display dates back to at least the 16th century. An essay by Michel de Montaigne refers to “a book to lay in the parlor window….” This was a putdown of a book that had little literary merit but might impress those who did not take the time to read it.

Some credit David R. Brower with introducing the “modern coffee table book” to the U.S. market in 1960. His first effort in a series published for the Sierra Club was This is the American Earth, a stunning collection of Ansel Adams photos with text by Nancy Newhall. Brower may have been inspired by British tomes using the term “coffee table books”; they appeared there as far back as the 1800s.

Coffee table books have become so popular that some consider them a genre or sub-genre. Most of them feature high quality photography but some highlight art or interesting subjects. They make great gifts for people you care about … including yourself. You’re sure to find a favorite among these:

400 Photographs – Ansel Adams
The Family of Man – Edward Steichen
Life 70 Years of Extraordinary Photography – Editors of Life
The Art Book – Phaedon Press
DIGNITY: In Honor of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – Dana Gluckstein
At Home with Books – Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm, Christopher Simon Sykes
Gnomes – Wil Huygen
1,000 Places to See Before You – Patricia Schultz
Star Wars: The Blueprints – J. W. Rinzler
Echoes of Earth – L. Sue Baugh
Atlas Obscura – Joshua Foes, Dylan Thuras, Ella Morton
In Full Flower – Gemma & Andrew Ingalls

Go dust and polish your coffee table (no matter what size or shape it is) and show off your favorite coffee table books.

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