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Speaking Volumes : Big Books Land on Coffee Tables, Where They're Hardly Ever Read

December 23, 1990|JACK SMITH

ONE THING I DON'T WANT for Christmas is a coffee-table book.

They are called coffee-table books, I suppose, because they are too big to go anyplace else, and they are expensive, lavishly illustrated books that are designed to catch the eye of the casual guest.

In most of our houses, coffee-table books have the status of vases or sculptures. They are admired as objects, but to open one is to imply that one is bored with the company.

My problem with coffee-table books is that our coffee table is covered with them already, to a depth of three, yet I have never seen any guest of ours open one, even for a cursory inspection.

I suspect that our guests are more interested in drinks and gossip than in reading. As for me, I'm afraid I am too often seduced away from books by television. On television, the pictures talk and move. And it is easier to turn on the TV than to lift a four-pound book.

Coffee-table books have a long shelf life, but some of them get out of date. One that now resides on our table is "The (London) Times Atlas of World History." The book is 11 inches high and 14 1/2 inches deep--too large for any of our bookcases. It was inevitably consigned to the coffee table, where it has lain for months, unopened. It appears to be an excellent book, with maps of every historical period from the first farmers of 9000 BC to the present.

From time to time, I find other places for our coffee-table books. I have already relocated a book about Maui, one on great Hollywood movies and one on Paris, a richly illustrated exploration of that exciting city. The jacket is a reproduction of Claude Monet's "Le Quai du Louvre," with the word Paris scrawled across the blue sky in lipstick red.

That this book lay in plain sight on our coffee table for years without attracting the slightest interest suggests that the coffee table is not a successful setting for the display of books.

Our most recent acquisition is "Westwind," a splendid example of the genre at its splashiest. "Westwind" is 12 1/2 inches high and 15 1/2 inches deep. It is the story of a small-boat odyssey down the West Coast from Cape Flattery to Ensenada. The text is by Walter Cronkite. The paintings, by his companion on the voyage, Ray Ellis, are fresh, pretty, lush, evocative and serene. I did not sample Cronkite's text, but I'm sure it is elegant. The book now resides on the coffee table, where it doubtless will remain in virginal neglect.

It shares the table top with "A Day in the Country," a catalogue of the splendid exhibition of impressionist paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art six years ago. The wraparound cover is a reproduction of Monet's "Train in the Countryside." It shows a quaint little passenger train puffing along a ridge behind trees and, below it, on the grass, a small child and a young woman with a parasol.

You might think that cover would have seduced many of our guests into exploring the catalogue and feasting on the sensually pretty evocations of the French countryside it contains. I have always been especially enchanted by Monet's "Terrace at Sainte-Andresse." One can almost feel the breeze that blows the flags. So far as I know, the book has never been opened by anyone but me.

Some years ago I tried testing my guests by placing an unusual book on the coffee table. It was an illustrated history of the Parisian bordello--full of arresting portraits of ladies of the night and illuminated by a factual, sympathetic text. It remained on the table, in full sight, inviolate.

I have no doubt that such books are designed and published with the certain knowledge that they will end up on coffee tables, never to be read or even looked at. Still, they are there . One never knows when a child, bored by adult chatter, may idly open one and be enchanted by a day in the French countryside or a stroll through Paris.

Though I may ignore my own coffee-table books, I have a habit of picking up and thumbing through those in the homes of my hosts. Usually, when I am caught doing this, my host asks genially if I wouldn't like something from the bar, and I realize that I am being impolite.

On the other hand, I do not want to let such social constraints keep me from enjoying the landmark products of the press.

If anyone wants to give me a Gutenberg Bible, I accept.

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