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Coffee table books you’ll actually want to read

By Yulia Ovcharova

Yulia Ovcharova suggests book-lovers’ alternatives to the Dior, Prada and Chanel books lining influencers’ shelves.

The greatest Roman orator, Marcus Tillius Cicero, is usually credited for the quote: “A room without books is like a body without a soul”. Whilst many people will probably find books as vital as Cicero’s alleged quote implies, some take the saying too seriously. They believe that the more books they shove into the alcoves of their towering libraries, the more their bodies are brimming with soul. That belief probably dates to the times when certain civilisations had a custom to donate lots of snacks, jewels, and gewgaws to the tombs for the deceased to utilise in their afterlife. Divided by thousands of years, these two kinds of storages incredibly resemble each other in a sense that their content is never used.

You might’ve caught a glimpse of that on YouTube or TikTok. Designer books where reading them isn’t part of the script. Hence, they’re “coffee table books”. A flip-through type. What for?

There are certainly nobler alternatives for readers. You only need to choose the right one. It’s possible to divide them into two main groups – the picturesque and the pictureless.

Picturesque, or just visual books are like documentaries that you watch by turning pages. They usually are quite big and can be heavy for one hand to hold, but fantastic photos are worth it. For example, Japanese Tattoos: Meanings, Shapes, and Motifs by Y. Moriarty, African Textiles: Colour and Creativity Across a Continent by J. Gillow, Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery by P. B. Welch to name a few. The beauty of those editions emerges from an eye-candy blend with rich cultural insight, and possibly an inspiration to do something you wanted for a long time.

For a more familiar or specific read, try The Book of the Raven: Corvids in Art and Legend by A. Hyland & C. Roberts, featuring crisp illustrations, and histories, and folktales about the intelligent, lovely bird. And finally, BYWAYS by R. A. Deakins; a stunning photo collection shot with the same hands as the Blade Runner 2049, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and many other elegant cinematics.

The next type lacks pictures – you’d want to ensure that your imagination is in the job. You don’t have to try hard because all of these narrate quite vividly – and in style. For instance, if you want to know about business while having a cuppa, look through In Praise of Folly by D. Erasmus. It’s an inspiring autobiography by Lady F. who subjected entire empires by simply existing. The Meditations by M. Aurelius (translated to modern English by G. Hays) is full of wise tips like “Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people.”

On the artistic side of the spectrum, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism by K. Malevich reveals how badass the Black Square really is on the battlefield of art! Speaking of the devil, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by D. Bayles & T. Orland is a must-read for supposedly talentless people who aspire to be artists. Even more so, Vincent van Gogh’s letters (with pictures, in fact!) will be of great use for them, too. 

If you get in the mood, add to your coffee-time the book Of Time, Space, and Other Things by Dr. Asimov, a sci-fi giant who wrote hundreds of wonderful works about this world. And, finally, The Meaning of Human Existence by E. O. Wilson. Sounds a bit overloaded? Worry not – the book is painless. It smartly fuses biology with evolution, occasionally giving its rigid science a gentle humanistic twist.

Instead of concluding, I’d rather suggest that you expand this list. You can never go wrong with reading mythology and folklore, for example. Jewish, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, Chinese, Norse… Anything that attracts you. They don’t have to be high-end classics – they shouldn’t if they’re guarding the coffee table. That’s not an aristocratic job, you know.


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