Saturday on the Couch - Coffee table books, the beauty queens of the book world

Just inside the front door of our local bookshop, there’s always a table of marked-down books… Coffee table books. They’re different sizes, but they’ve all got lots of pictures, lots of photos. They vary in thickness, size and subject matter. While they might be available on Kindle, they do not translate well to black and white.

Are these the last books we’ll keep buying?

These are books that rely on the quality of their illustrations, though the best of them have excellent accompanying texts.

They vary in price. The most expensive I’ve seen was in ‘Title’ on Grey St, Southbank; $400 would get you a summary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. I regularly see illustrated books for less than $10.

The purpose of coffee table books was, originally, as an item of decoration. Sophisticated books lay around on coffee tables to impress guests. These days they are valued for their contents and quality.

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Landscape books, beautifully illustrated, provide memories of places visited, or inspire dreams of travel. My most recent gift to a sister-in-law was a heavy tome simply titled Africa. She and my late brother-in-law had had a wonderful trip there some years ago.

I own a lovely book, The Coffee Houses of Europe redolent with the richness of the coffee houses in Paris, Vienna, Prague. If you’ve been on an APT river cruise, you’ve probably visited some of them.

Books about animals need illustrations. Who can forget the classic What Bird is That?, well-thumbed in school libraries before internet days. We have books on Australian birds, horses, dogs and cats. The Love of Dogs with text suited to a primary school aged child, is, well, dog-eared from much handling by my daughters.

Fashion and decorating books are admirably suited to the coffee table format. Vogue frequently releases retrospectives.

Art books, obviously, need illustrations. Favourite painters, sculptures, architects, classic buildings all have their work brought to the general public through books. Libraries always have a stock of these. We can’t all travel and see the originals, but we can browse in the local library. Sometimes the original disappoints, ‘Mona Lisa’ is so small and the venue so crowded, the Sistine Chapel is also so crowded it’s hard to appreciate ‘The Creation’. But I love ‘The Haywain’ even if I have had to block out the enthusiastic tour guide ‘explaining’ the picture to eight year olds.

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A classic art book, simply called The Art Book and published by Phaidon has been a valuable source of reference in this household for many years — and a practical doorstop.

While coffee table books may date, they still hold relevance as an interpretation of their time. Souvenir books of the coronation are much valued for what they show about the crowds as what they show about the Royal Family.

Do you think you will only buy illustrated books in future and buy the rest electronically? What coffee table books do you have in your home?

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