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December 23, 2015

Linwood Barclay: The Coffee Table Book

Posted by emily

Internationally bestselling author Linwood Barclay knows a thing or two about what makes a book a page-turner…or not. In his Holiday Author Blog, the BROKEN PROMISE author muses on the existential conundrum of the coffee table book. Has anyone ever read one front to back? Is it a crime to put them on bookshelves? And why do we keep making fruitcakes if no one really likes eating them? Linwood attempts to answer all these questions --- and more --- just in time for the holidays. Look for his forthcoming book, FAR FROM TRUE, the second book in the Promise Falls trilogy, in stores on March 8th. You can place it wherever you want, so long as you read it.

It occurred to me the other day that I have never seen a bookmark in a coffee table book.

I was thinking about this because it’s the Christmas season, which means not only is it the time of year when people give books as gifts, they are very likely to give coffee table books as gifts.

(It occurs to me that not only have I never seen a bookmark in a coffee table book, I have never heard of an e-coffee table book. But I digress.)

I don’t make this bookmark observation as a knock against coffee table books. I like them. We have coffee table books on cottages, on trains, on the Titanic. I have a collection of front pages from The Onion. There’s one going back nearly 40 years on Ireland by Leon Uris.

We have so many of them that we have had to stack some of them on the shelf under the coffee table books. No publisher, to my knowledge, markets under-the-coffee table books, but they exist. We also have coffee table books on actual bookshelves. I don’t know whether this breaks any laws. I think the same police divisions that devote themselves to going after people who take the tags off mattresses go after folks who put coffee table books on shelves.

We like coffee table books; we love to flip through them and look at the pictures, but I have never read a coffee table book from beginning to end and don’t know anyone who has. And many coffee table books have plenty of text in them.

Case in point: One of the most gorgeous coffee table books I have ever received, from our son Spencer, as it turns out, is SAUL BASS: A Life in Film & Design, by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham. It has a foreword by director Martin Scorsese.

Even if you don’t know who Saul Bass is, you have seen his work. He did those amazing opening credits for Psycho. He did countless movie posters, like the one for Anatomy of a Murder. The guy was a graphic design genius. A legend in the movie business.

So I love picking up this book. I do it often. It actually sits on TOP of a coffee table in our house. But I have read almost none of the text. I have not even read the foreword by Martin Scorsese. I can almost guarantee that on one has ever come up to him and said, “Oh my God, are you the one who wrote the foreword to the Saul Bass book?”

I think, as a writer, one of the most disheartening assignments has to be being asked to write the text that wraps around the pictures in a coffee table book. You’ll have to put all this work into it, knowing full well that no one will ever appreciate it. During this Christmas season, it is kind of the literary equivalent of fruitcake. A tremendous amount of time goes into making it, but no one really wants to eat it.

Of course, if you did intend to read a coffee table book from cover to cover, and had a bookmark at the ready, is this really the kind of thing you want to have to drag around with you on the subway? How big a purse are you going to need?

Finally, none of this applies to collections of cartoons by Roz Chast. I read every last one. Take that, Scorsese. 

(Next year’s rant, by the way, will be on coloring books for adults. If anyone can produce, by next Christmas, a completely colored-in coloring book that was given to someone this Christmas, I will eat that Saul Bass book.)