Art Lessons from my Coffee Table Books
Glossy, glamorous and lush with photos and generally sparse on words, they’re called coffee table books. The term is vaguely pejorative. It’s as though these gorgeous tomes are akin to runway models, meant to be appreciated for their surface beauty and not expected to reveal much intellectual depth. If anything, people riffle through the pages and then return to cocktail conversation.
But I disagree with this characterization of coffee table books — or at least my coffee table books — as eye candy. I was recently reunited with some two or three dozen of my coffee table books on the topics of art and design. The experience was a memory stroll through the last four decades of my life, not only as I educated myself on art but also the stages of my career and my personal history.
Books are the markers of my life, even if I’ve read them once and haven’t opened them for decades. I have a box of well-thumbed travel guides, some even dating to the $5 A Day genre, that serve as postcards of my travels: Greece, Italy, India, Antarctica. The same is true of my art and design coffee table books.
One of the first I bought — and one I’m thinking of donating to Goodwill — was The Barn, A Vanishing Landmark in North America, by Eric Arthur and Dudley Whitney. It was 1972 and I was enrolled in Drake University’s School of Journalism in Des Moines, Iowa. Even now, I flip through the pages and remember Professor Bob Woodward, who encouraged his students to explore local topics. There is a typed (!), never-published draft of my article on barn-raising, folded inside the book.
“ It might be hard to believe that many of the big old horse barns across the state — those huge halls built to hold a herd and a pile of hay — were built in a…