Has the bookshelf become a dinosaur?

Ikea is redesigning its iconic “Billy” bookcase, assuming that digital-age customers will be using them more and more for "tchotchkes" and less and less for books.

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    Ikea's beloved “Billy” bookcase is morphing into a deeper-shelved model, all the better to hold non-book items.
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Bookshelves used to say something about personalities: Did the owners love collecting works on American history, or cyberpunk novels? Could you start a conversation based on a new acquaintance’s complete collection of John Muir’s writings, or the rows of Danielle Steel?

But those days are ending, says an Economist article, noting that Ikea has redesigned its iconic “Billy” bookcase into a deeper-shelved model. “The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for tchotchkes, ornaments, and the odd coffee-table tome – anything, that is, except books that are actually read,” the article snipes. The redesign follows the industry’s move toward e-books over paper, and downloads over brick-and-mortar stores. It’s a startling change; a BBC story just two years ago stressed that the Billy bookcase was built for the purpose of “supporting and displaying books”.

Even that story acknowledged the dual exhibitionist and inspirational nature of a bookcase, that it is (or at least can be) “about showing off how much you have read, or plan to read, or pretend to have read. You are subtly suggesting that you are the sort of person who keeps 'Finnegans Wake' handy, for example, just in case you ever fancy dipping in for a quick, albeit incomprehensible, catch-up.”

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There’s no "Finnegans Wake" on my home shelves, but I admit to keeping ancient college texts that I’ll probably never read again, just because I remember the startling feelings evoked when they first opened my eyes to new ideas and cultures. I don’t want to part with the lovely leather-bound Kiplings that I bought with my husband-to-be (now my husband of many years). I’m glad I hung on to some old favorites – like the Louisa May Alcott and Madeleine L’Engle books I received as childhood gifts – long enough for my own children to enjoy them. I am indeed trying to prune my shelves, but only of books – and knick-knacks, for that matter – that don’t carry the same emotional power.

I can’t quite imagine bookcases going away, yet I realize that it’s been a while since I’ve seen a record shelf or even a CD case displaying the owner’s musical tastes, which I’ve always considered as much an announcement (or aspiration of character as a bookshelf. It’s a lot harder at a party to subtly browse the iTunes list of your new friends, or their Nooks.

The Economist noted, though, that one reason for the demise of the old Billy bookcase is the very anonymity that e-books provide. “Romance novels and crime blockbusters have proved particularly popular on e-readers, perhaps because it is difficult to tell from across the aisle of a bus whether someone is reading a bodice-ripper or Dostoevsky on their Kindle,” the article said.

So maybe instead of mourning the old bookcase-look, the idea is to wait for access to your friends’ e-reading lists. If you do get to that electronic library, maybe it’ll be an even truer peek at character.

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com

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