Booknotes 178, Summer 2013, p10-11
Last night I dreamt about Dita Von Teese. I dreamt about her as a precursor to writing this piece about coffee table books. I’m sure Dita can’t quite imagine me here on the other side of the world dreaming about her for such pragmatic reasons. I don’t think that is why she paints her nails, endures manicures and pedicures, and is sublimely coiffed. Dita does not sit in a giant sized martini glass so that I can consider what she has offered the genre of the coffee table book. Yet, Burlesque and The Art of The Teese is the most tempting coffee table book I’ve ever seen. Let me clarify that I don’t own this book. However, I know it intimately. In my ten-year tenure as a Borders bookseller, I even formed a merchandising training guide around Burlesque and the Art of The Teese.
My unlikely manifesto detailed the similarity between beautiful women and beautiful books. It was a manual about the pragmatics of effective display including technical information on the colour wheel, Andy Warhol, surrealism, and the importance of the element of surprise. Writing the merchandising manual was a rather elastic use of my art school training and my time, but it cemented my thoughts on the ‘The Lure Book.’ The Lure Book is a siren that when placed prominently on any display in any bookstore will call all customers irresistibly to its mast.
Burlesque and the Art of The Teese is a lure book, as alluring as Dita herself. Dita is posed on the cover wearing a bedazzled bikini and wielding a pair of pink ostrich feathers. My merchandising manual wasn’t rocket science, but it was efficient. Where ever I placed Dita men and women would flock: they had to look. They had to touch. They had to at least pick it up. We live in modern times and most could succumb to its charms, though not its bulging price point. (At the time it retailed for approximately fifty pounds.)
Burlesque and the Art of The Teese was particularly at home on Valentine’s Day with pink texts fanned out beside it: Chloe Hooper’s Sex Tips, a few Purple Ronnie’s, a DVD of The Notorious Bettie Page. Dita and Bettie made very comfortable bedfellows. However, I have also used it much more tangentially as the centerpiece of a Father’s Day table flanked by Advanced Wood Routing and The Knitter’s Book on Socks. I found a way to sneak Dita into – almost – every occasion. Consequentially the provincial Borders store I worked for at the time had the highest sales, after the flagship store on Oxford Street in London.
But what does Burlesque and the Art of The Teese tell us about the art of the coffee table book? Only the obvious: it is the place for quirk and kink. It is the place where a book can – and should – be judged by its cover. Appearance reigns supreme in this genre. Or as Dita herself says, “I advocate glamour. Every day. Every minute.” If the cover isn’t a stunner, forget about it. These books are big by nature, often mountainous in size. (Many even feature mountains on the cover.) The coffee table book is the natural summit of any display; it’s apex. It is a touristic genre defined by the bold and the beautiful and illustrated with lavish pictorial panoramas.
In New Zealand Craig Potton cleans up, providing stunning pictures of the landscape, sweeping vistas of sea and sky. Admire the hu-hu bug and fondly recall the coiled tendril of the Ponga tree. Craig Pottons are designed to make excellent gifts and in my time at Borders Wellington the hotel staff often purchased multiple copies as parting mementos for important corporate clients from overseas. However, the coffee table book meets its ultimate nexus in art, architecture, design and fashion. And I guess cookery. But how many of us actually act upon these elaborate recipes? Cookbooks are a fool’s gold.
The books I adore are about art. My favourite recent acquisition is Contemporary New Zealand Photographers. This book has physical and intellectual weight. An Yvonne Todd photograph entitled Seriousness adorns the cover. The image is of a line of pine trees against a grey sky. The trees do indeed look rather serious. I like the way Todd’s photograph provides a stark contrast to Craig Potton’s commercial touristic imagery. I continually return to browse Contemporary New Zealand Photographers consulting not just the images, but also the texts, which provide useful overviews on each artist. I do love a good overview. I grew up on Taschen books about contemporary artists and I also appreciated their postcards.
Taschen are masters of the affordable coffee table book. We need to see that close up of Frida Kahlo and her charming monkey, its paw draped round her shoulder, the monkey’s eyes as black as Frida’s monobrow.
Taschen are masters of the affordable coffee table book. We need to see that close up of Frida Kahlo and her charming monkey, its paw draped round her shoulder, the monkey’s eyes as black as Frida’s monobrow. Taschen are also savvy enough to provide the viewer with extra kink: The Big Butt Book, The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Book of the Penis (these last two titles are also available in 3D.) These books have handsome horizontal covers with true heft. Well thumbed, they have a habit of moving around the store, like fish drifting down stream. On a good – or bad day – The Big Book of the Penis, could be found nuzzling up to a Craig Potton at the bottom of the photography section.
Outrageous Yachts. Monsters in the Movies. Extraordinary Chickens. Why Cats Paint? Coffee table books are our errant uncles, our unhinged thoughts. Who doesn’t enjoy being lightly titillated by a hilarious title, or high concept? Who can resist owning a work of encyclopedic scope; especially when it is bestowed as a gift? The coffee table book has its own Wikipedia entry in which it is accused of superficiality. Touche!
On Seinfeld, Kramer made a coffee table book about coffee tables, which also had fold out legs and could be used as a coffee table. This raises an interesting point. Has the coffee table itself shrunk in cultural importance?
I don’t even own a coffee table. My Mum had one in the flat where I grew up but there were never any glamorous coffee table books placed on it. Instead it boasted a world-weary fern that sat between the couch and the TV adding to the climate of suburban ennui. In my lifetime I never expected to contemplate such ponderous issues as the long-term fate of the paperback and the natural lifespan of a bookstore. Now, I can barely wriggle through a week without thinking about the benefits of e-books VS p-books.
The closure of Parsons in Auckland last year surprised and saddened locals. “If only the Auckland City Art Gallery could have bought it,” one curator said to me wistfully, as though the bookshop could be added to the public collection. In a sense that is how Parsons functioned, a wonderful gallery, storing more treasures than most, it was filled to the brim with beautiful books and was also a haven for artistic talent. Many New Zealand artists and writers have done their tenure behind the till. I understand the mourning that accompanies the closure of a great bookstore. Hell, I even understand the mourning that accompanies the closure of a mediocre bookstore, but as an old Borders manager once said to me, “all good things must come to an end.” Easy for him to say: he was leaving to go to Apple.
Some believe this is the time for the opulent book, the rise of the hardback, covered in bling, the physical experience looming ever larger in our digital lives. In this welter of commercial doubt the coffee table book could rise to its zenith! At the very least we will be left with multiple coffee table books on books themselves. And bookstores. Such works are already plentiful. Currently I have my eye on a small hardback at Unity Wellington that is filled with lovely line drawings of writer’s bookshelves. If we become an increasingly fetishized and marginalized community there will be even more catalogues of images of 21st century bookshelves and bookstores, lamenting the loss of a time when p-books were as plentiful as forests of pine trees. Eventually there will be a book on the e-reader itself, perhaps in the shape of an e-reader? We’ll smile at how large and clunky it seems, like an early mobile phone. (People already smile at the clunkiness of the e-reader.)
Since I was swept up in the liquidation of Borders UK, I’ve thought a lot about Fahrenheit 451 and Ray Bradbury’s vision of the future without books. Fahrenheit 451 is not currently a coffee table book, although time could change that. Montag is the fireman hired to burn books, suppressing freedom of speech. Clarisse is the young freethinking woman who is the catalyst for his spiritual and intellectual awakening. But it’s actually Montag’s vilified wife, Mildred, who interests me. Mildred is not given much stock in the narrative: she is a slave to technology, a watcher of soap operas, a suicidal pill popper. Yet, I can’t help but think Mildred merely represented the average reader. If Fahrenheit 451 was written now, Mildred would have a Facebook profile, she’d tweet and listen to Spotify and in the background on her coffee table, hidden beneath a slumbering Kindle and several copies of Vogue magazine, I can just about make out an errant copy of Burlesque and the Art of the Teese.