I n a time when books are increasingly stored on e-readers and the cloud, the tactile charm of a book-laden shelf verges into the realm of decoration. But as thousands of posts tagged with “bookshelf wealth” on TikTok – and the accompanying think pieces in magazines like Vogue and Architectural Digest – can attest, the attention we pay to our bookshelves speaks to more than just our sense of style. Like all collecting, a well-curated bookshelf expresses our intellectual passions and cultural history.
Broadly speaking, the newly coined phrase “bookshelf wealth” – a pun on the stealth-wealth trend of yesteryear – champions the creation of inviting, lived-in interiors. It encourages a blend of cherished volumes with textured fabrics, comfortable seating and an eclectic mix of art and keepsakes, setting the stage for daily life. It’s part of a larger shift away from stark minimalism toward more character-filled homes that offer comfort and personal identity.
But it’s not only about opulence for its own sake – true bookshelf wealth is a harmonious display of art, artifacts and decor that collectively narrate the unique story of a home and its inhabitants identities.
Dr Kalika Sands, a specialist and head of sale in Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, is enthusiastic about the resurgent interest in how books define our living spaces. “Books epitomize this idea of something useful and beautiful,” she says, citing William Morris, an important figure in the 19th century Arts & Crafts movement. Morris’ advice for homeowners was “to have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Similarly, members of London's Bloomsbury Group cultivated their interiors with an eye toward personal expression and aesthetic pleasure.
Sands emphasizes that the transformative power of literary works extends beyond the words on their pages. For example, she is fond of 19th-century literature, as the Industrial Revolution fueled advancements in printing: brightly-colored cloth, embossed covers and spines all flourished. Embracing a chromatic bookshelf could therefore suggest a different appreciation for organizing tomes with uniform bindings – or as one regrettable fad encouraged, turning books pages-out to hide their spines.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Or consider how an item such as an antique map of London can tell a larger story. “One of the pleasures of reading is being transported by a good story, and in the works of Charles Dickens, one can view the city of London as its own character,” Sands says. “In a novel like Little Dorrit, for example, a reader can trace the movements of the hero and heroine through the metropolis and become intimately acquainted with the busy streets and neighborhoods as they’re led through Dickens’ imagination. It’s easy to see how period-specific records of such cityscapes can offer a striking addition to any room, and help contextualize a book collection.”
A thoughtful tableau enriches the entire home with a set of historical, cultural and highly personal dimensions – not the least of which is an appreciation for classics. A rare or first edition goes further, conveying an appreciation for beautiful heirlooms that generations can cherish.
“Condition is everything when collecting modern first editions,” Sands says, stressing the balance between personal connection and aesthetic value in curating a bookshelf. “Books are artworks in themselves; iconic covers like The Great Gatsby, Lolita or On the Road can transform a modern classic into a visual focal point and an inevitable talking point.”
Sands points to the striking mint-green first edition of The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, the psychedelic original cover of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the surprisingly naturalistic edition of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice – the eleventh adventure in his James Bond series – as particularly evocative examples.
A truly personal bookshelf weaves in knick-knacks and design objects that mirror the collector’s interests and hobbies. Items with deep familial or historical significance, like a Victorian silver kiddush cup from Gorham or Jan Jasson’s ornate map of the British Isles, add layers of story and character. Additionally, infuse your space with joy through decorative pieces such as Marcella Cure’s olivewood and malachite dice set, symbolizing luck, a sumptuous Hermès cashmere and merino wool throw for your reading nook or an English Victorian carved bulldog inkwell – all brimming with character. The essence of a captivating collection lies in choosing pieces that resonate with you.
Bookshelf wealth encourages a less precious attitude toward our collections, inviting us to integrate these valued items into our daily routines instead of viewing them as imposing artifacts relegated to glass cases. Regardless of the hashtag’s life cycle on social media, its appeal is timeless to collectors everywhere.