by Alison Lake

#13, 8 March 2004

Bookends and Beginnings

French-speakers call bookends appui-livres or books' support. I kind of like this word better than bookends. If you're going to use bookends, why not bookstarts too? You see bookends on both the left and right sides of book rows, especially when books serve more as decoration than actual reading material.

Henry Petroski, author of The Book on the Bookshelf, calls bookends "curious constructions that are supposed to hold books back as a dam does water." He says, "They may or may not support the slender or the squat." This is true. It's all a matter of gravity and placement of objects so there is just enough balance to hold everything together. In some homes, the way books are arranged on bookshelves ranges from random to comical and probably suits the owner just fine.

However, there really is a logic behind arranging books vertically. The boards that form a book's cover are more likely to deform if placed horizontally, especially if the surface they're placed on isn't flat or there are heavy books stacked on top.

Even if books are placed vertically, the same can happen to both the cover and the spine if they are packed too tightly or too loosely. Ideally, books should be packed just tightly enough to keep them upright but not so tightly as to invite damage when removing them. Also, if they are allowed to lean for extended periods of time, spine deformation will almost inevitably occur in the form of twist, slant or lean.

Bookends can help prevent all of these problems.

I look around the study I share with my husband (he calls it an office) and notice the six-shelved bookshelf that towers over me. If we have another earthquake like we did last month, the stuff on my desk will be in trouble. Even bookends won't save me then. As our study isn't divided perfectly in half, his bookshelf sits near my desk, while my bookshelf is in the kitchen. I also store books in some of my desk drawers.

We don't need bookends in the study because the shelves are full. My bookcase in the kitchen only holds the books I am either reading or plan to read and also serves as a display surface for some of my knickknacks and a lamp. Two military moves reformed my packrat ways, so I am very choosy about the books I keep. As a result, there are too few books in my kitchen to fill up a shelf; I need a bookend. Mine is a great one - a solid ten pound piece of brass, U.S. Naval Academy issue - but I worry about it falling on someone's foot.

Petroski quotes a Victorian guide that claimed the most effective bookend ever was a simple wooden block cut in half diagonally. Of course the weight and height of the books are the main determinants in choice of bookends.

Utilitarian props, not the main objects of interest, bookends have blended into rooms and varied over the years with styles, type of book, and purpose. Bookends are a matter of both taste and utility. My least favorite bookend is the institutional university library gray steel bracket that tucks underneath and hooks to an equally ugly metal shelf. Although I love libraries, there is something forbidding about those bookends, like you really aren't supposed to touch the books. Fond bookends of mine were the faux antique paper maché bookends in the shape of a child seated in a chair reading. They were given to me by a family friend who since passed away. Unfortunately these were too light and tended to knock over onto the floor if the books were too heavy.

Bookends haven't been around all that long. Not until after the medieval days of monks' carrels, book chests, and books chained to lecterns did bookshelves themselves come into regular use. Of course, without bookshelves, there weren't bookends either. Before that, people (monks and scholars especially) who owned books often stored and read them on a slanted desk.

In the 15th and 16th century, as libraries became more crowded and the number of books in print increased, lecterns were no longer practical for holding all those books. First, a single shelf was built above or below the lectern for book storage. Back to back lecterns shared a top shelf for books. Each lectern had its own pigeonholes underneath for more book storage. Then, by the late sixteenth century it became customary to see shelving with books stacked horizontally. There was still no need for bookends.

As a person or library amassed more and more books, removing one book from a vertical stack was inconvenient and even dangerous. Books could fall on an earnest student sitting on the other side of the lectern! At some point bright people began stacking books vertically, but bookends still didn't appear until well after the Renaissance. Since most books in print tended to be around the same dimensions, books could lean on each other when there happened to be a little extra space in a bookshelf. Nowadays, books come in all sizes, and a combination of small and large paperbacks with textbooks and no bookend means a mess of books on your shelf. Of course, books can be wedged between any number of items in a house and are even stacked on the floor next to furniture in more cluttered places I have seen.

Maybe bookends are kind of a luxury. You could really just use any gravity-appropriate object instead or fill up your shelves so you don't need any. But you can't predict when you will have some free space on a shelf. Bookends keep books looking neat and sometimes serve a decorative purpose. Many people cherish their books not only for what lies between the covers but also for keepsake value, and nice bookends add to the visual display. Bookends often reflect the style of their times. Some are collectible. Some are even pieces of art. I have always owned bookends since I started to read novels as a kid, and for me they are quite familiar and a part of home.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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