Monday 12 September 2022

Coffee-Table Comment

Maybe a coffee-table would help...

I used to comment quite frequently on various blogs, but not so much in recent times, not least because so many of the various bloggers whose blogs I used to comment on have ceased publishing. I have to assume there is no direct causal connection between the two; it's just quite likely that the sort of thing that appeals to an ageing white male like me with slightly esoteric interests may be doomed as an online enterprise. There just aren't as many of us around as there used to be. It's rather like my experience of supermarket shopping: no sooner do I take to buying a nice new product regularly, than they seem to stop stocking it. A person could become paranoid.

Commenting is only rewarding, I think, if the blogger takes the trouble to respond to comments. It seems only polite, and sometimes the ensuing exchange of views in the comments can become more interesting and entertaining than the post itself, and may even come, in time, to constitute an online community with its own resident personalities, in-jokes, and persistent themes (as an example see Language Hat, no relation). A few years ago this blog had something of a commenting heyday along those lines, which I enjoyed a lot. Without that element of dialogue, though, leaving a comment feels rather too much like talking to yourself. Perhaps that's why commenting, like blogging in general, seems to be losing much of its attraction, except on the very largest sites, where you can at least presume a comment will get a cursory read from a number of people, if not necessarily any response.

However, I was moved to comment on a certain blog recently, because of the use of the term "coffee-table book" to describe a particularly fine and sought-after photo-book. My comment was this:

Sigh... Can we please stamp out the use of "coffee-table book" as if it were the technical term for any large illustrated book, including superbly sequenced and beautifully printed photo-books? It's a derogatory term, meaning "the sort of thing the pretentious rich leave lying around ostentatiously (on their coffee table) as a sort of interior decoration"...

Anyone leaving any of my precious photo-books lying around on any table where food or coffee might be served (we don't actually have a "coffee table") gets to sit on the naughty step.

It's one of the (admittedly numerous) things that irritate me when I go out on the Web, and encounter the damage done to the nuances of our language by misuse, neglect, and ignorance. It's as if the term "fashion victim" had somehow become the standard, neutral term for anyone with a lively interest in clothes; although it's true that "fashionista" seems to have done precisely that, despite what is surely the mildly derogatory inflection behind the original coinage. But there is no question that "coffee-table book" was intended to be derogatory, and still is, surely, to anyone with any sensitivity to language. A large volume mainly containing photographs of improbably chic interiors, like a hardbound edition of some glossy lifestyle magazine, may of course be referred to dismissively as a coffee-table book; because that's what it is. But anyone choosing to refer that way to, say, Richard Avedon's In the American West or Josef Koudelka's Gypsies needs to get a dictionary. Yes, they're big books; yes, they're full of photographs; and, yes, they're light on text. But coffee-table books? Please...

On the other hand... An awful lot of the photo-books getting published these days are little more than half-baked vanity projects or rehashed master's degree work, cobbled together by a publisher's design team so as to "pass" to the casual eye as a serious bookwork, and often tarted up in various ways to appeal to the collector mentality. You'll know the sort of thing I mean if you, like me, are a recovering photo-book punter who still follows the form of the runners and riders but rarely places a bet these days. Limited editions, signed and numbered limited editions, special editions with a print, limited signed and numbered special editions with a print and an invitation to dinner, and so on... There are simply too many of these zombie books, heavy on packaging and self-declared significance, but ultra-light on content. Hardly any are actually worth buying, whether as items of delight or profound insight, or simply as speculative investments. Frankly, I pity the deluded fool who opens a special edition copy of Fifty Shitty Shoe Shops in anticipation of an enlightening or pleasurable experience.

We need another word for these unworthy offerings: certainly, they're not destined to decorate the coffee tables of the wealthy. There's no status to be gained in coffee-table circles by leaving even the limited signed and numbered special edition with a print and an invitation to dinner of Affectless Teens Contemplate Futility lying around in plain view. If I wanted to be facetious, I suppose I might call them McBooks (as in MACK-books). I quite like "zombie books". But the crucial thing is, where are such false-starts and fashion-forward abominations intended to end up, if not on a coffee table? On that basis I'd be tempted to call them, say, CV-books (or in the US, résumé-books); cruel, but fair.

But, no, I think I've got it. Periodically I get sent lists of "on sale" reductions from various photo-book sellers, and – look! – there they all are, last year's most puffed publications, as well as the ones from the year before, and the year before that, still unsold and now taking up precious shelf-space. Or I might go into a specialist bookshop, and there they are again, all laid out with "reduced!" stickers on the front. It seems nobody actually wanted to buy Affectless Teens Contemplate Futility or even Fifty Shitty Shoe Shops, despite figuring so prominently on those hipper-than-thou "books of the year" lists. So I'm pretty sure that what they should be called is: remainder-table books.


Stephen said...


"You'll know the sort of thing I mean if you, like me, are a recovering photo-book punter who still follows the form of the runners and riders but rarely places a bet these days."

I recently got rid of about 50 I no longer had any interest in and swore never to buy another, though I've since reneged on that promise with a few great books I had to have. [By Mark Ruwedel, Mitch Epstein and An-My Le.]

Since the demise of Borders book shop in Glasgow — the only local book shop that stocked a reasonable range — I've been buying photo books online. The problem being of course that you can't really see what you're getting till it turns up on the doorstep.

I'm not sure there's an answer to this, though it's sometimes possible to watch a YouTube video of the book in question being flicked through, which is something of a help.

[And I admit that I recently added to the pile of vanity photobooks by 'Publishing' a small book of my own. More to see what sort of print quality was available than anything else. (It had a naff title but maybe not quite as terrible as "Affectless Teens Contemplate Futility" or "Fifty Shitty Shoe Shops").]



Mike C. said...


Even for those of us within reach of London online has really been the only way to access photo-books for some while. A Scottish online seller I recommend is Beyond Words, run by Neil McIlwraith (


Stephen said...

Cheers Mike. I'll take a look.