The modern bookcase is a rather simple affair consisting, in its most stripped down configuration, of two uprights securing two or more horizontal shelves, the whole assembly made rigid by a fixed back. From this basic form springs the enormous variety of bookcases available today. Small or large, tall or squat, in beautiful, polished hardwood and veneers or utilitarian metal, bookcases are available to suit every space and style.
If it is true, as has often been stated, that the universe has a natural tendency towards increasingly disorganized states, then bookcases represent a humble weapon in the cause of order. Books were originally stored on shelves or cubby holes integrated into the wall. Books were so rare that the monasteries and homes of the wealthy where they might be found required very little space to accommodate them. Books were considered so valuable, in fact, that they often traveled with their owners, secured in locked boxes which were often themselves quite ornate. When at home, books were kept in cabinets or cupboards with doors to protect them.
With the introduction of the printing press, the cost of producing books declined and they became more available to an increasing number of households. Still expensive, however, and far beyond the reach of most people, those who could afford to collect them soon commissioned cabinets expressly designed to house their prized possessions. Still protected behind closed doors, these cabinets or cases often had glass inserted in the doors allowing the books to be admired without being touched.
It was at this time that the preferred method of arranging and displaying books changed. Prior to the printing press, books were typically stored on their sides with the spine towards the back. This allowed an observer to admire the frequently ornate clasp that was used to keep the book closed. With the newfound ability to print the name of the book on the spine, book owners started to arrange their books upright and with the spine facing outward.
As books became more and more available, bookcases grew in size and quality. Renowned cabinet makers, like Chippendale and Sheraton, produced bookcases of great beauty. Even though books were far more widely available, and no one carried them in ornate coffers any more, they were still highly valued and worthy of elegant display cases. Doors became more of a hindrance than a necessity, and soon were eliminated from most designs. In more modest surroundings, people simply removed the doors from their cupboards, allowing ready access to their prized collections.
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In a way, bookcases have come full circle, just simple shelves designed to hold books. Unlike medieval versions, however, bookcases today tend to be free-standing. That basic design has also given birth to an enormous number of variations on a theme, with bookcases available to suit just about every room and style. Some things never change, though. Books are still highly prized, not because they are so expensive to obtain, but because they hold ideas of great value. We display them in bookcases with pride, as highly regarded possessions, as well we should.