To the Kindle cradler, a row of books on a shelf represents nothing more than the dried-up husks of exhausted passions.
To the obsessive compulsive, books offer an opportunity to alphabetise and dust.
To the interior designer, they represent a wall of visual insulation and an intellectual veneer.
As for the rest of us, the digital revolution is forcing us to re-examine our strange and intricate relationship with the printed word. Cicero reputedly – for which you can probably read ‘didn’t’ – said that a room without books was “like a body without a soul”.
At the time, of course, he probably didn’t envisage that people would be using them as styling props. Leaving an art book open on the Yves Klein page as part of a tablescape doesn’t mean you have a soul; it means you are pretentious and like a splash of blue in a room.
People commit all sorts of crimes against books in the name of style. I knew someone – OK, it was my husband – who in the Eighties defrocked all our books because he didn’t like the shininess of the jackets; he preferred a run of sombre matt spines.
This was not as extreme as the stylist Sue Skeen, who at one stage covered all her books in white paper, which was breathtaking in its audacity as well as its beauty.
This, it should be noted, is considered cool and ironic, whereas fake, tooled book spines, bought by the metre, are still frowned upon as frightfully déclassé by those whose libraries have been handed down over the centuries.
There are good practical reasons for keeping books, even if they do sit there gathering dust and reproaching you with their unwrinkled spines. A wall of books provides a certain amount of insulation but more importantly transforms the acoustics of a room. Soundwaves get broken up by the different heights of the books, making for a less reverberant interior. This is probably the scientific reasoning behind the airy-fairy notion that books make a room feel more cosy.
For many people, the idea of getting rid of books – ones they have read, ones they have never read and have no intention of reading, even scruffy paperbacks – is sacrilegious. Books are more than the sum of their contents, they are cultural icons. How else can you explain the presence of your O-level maths textbook on your shelves?
Malcolm Temple, an artist and designer who has painstakingly custom-made his own shelves, including a totemic freestanding one, has resisted his wife’s urging to cull his collection.
“Books create an atmosphere,” he says. “They’re also your history.” This is true, although they are also of course a false history of the person you wish you were.