Books on Display

In which I give advice on how to pick the right coffee table books and why you should avoid putting books in the loo. 

For some, a coffee table book is a conversation starter. For others, it is a decorative prop. 

Whatever a person’s intention, the book or books you choose to put on display are a shorthand way of telling someone something about you. It points to the bit of yourself that you like and want people to know about.

It is unlike other books. It is specially selected for display, perhaps with a two or three other carefully curated books. These books live a separate life from the creased A-level texts and self-help books.

They have a particular look, they are glossier, picture-laden, showier. Sure, Anna Karenina might’ve shaped your world view, but it’s not a coffee table book. You can’t casually flick through as you wait for your host to make you a mojito. A Child Called It is certainly thought-provoking but is that the conversational tone you want to set when guests come over to celebrate your birthday?

I have a friend called Patty and that isn’t her real name. I noticed that she had a Vogue coffee table book out on display. She said, with a laugh, ‘I haven’t even looked through it!’

She wanted the book to be a shorthand for ‘I am interested in fashion, the visual arts and high-end clothing’ but it felt as phony as her pseudonym. Can you imagine owning a book which you have never opened? Don’t be a phony.

Coffee table books lends themselves to being excellent gifts. Here are a few tips to help you buy a fitting gift for a friend or for yourself.


It’s show-homey, gauche and inauthentic to pick a book because the beautifully-bound cover works with the rest of the décor. If the subject matter isn't true to you, then all the book will say is 'My owner knows how to match colours'. Obviously, the best path to tread is the one down the middle: pleasing on the outside and the inside.

Pretty, yes. Believable, no. 

Pretty, yes. Believable, no. 

Get the subject right

Don’t pick a book that you think will make you look clever/creative/quirky. Be yourself! Imagine a visitor saying: ‘Oh wow! A hardback book on glove-making in Holland in the 1590s! I had no idea you loved the craft!’ Then you have to admit you’ve never seen a Dutch glove, let alone one from the 1590s. The horror! And it goes without saying, don't buy a book on religious iconography for your atheist friend. 


One of my husband’s friends bought us ‘Amazing Places Cost Nothing’ when we got engaged. This was a triumph of a gift because it was a nice thing for us to look through together when planned our honeymoon. It felt completely appropriate for the occasion: a forward-looking, positive, beautiful book. 

Consider DIY

Why don't you make a coffee table book? Fun times, cool pictures, places you love? I've made two using Asda digital photobooks and I've not been disappointed. You just upload the pictures you want, crop and edit them and Bob's your uncle. A glossy photobook which is totally bespoke. The tool even lets you know whether your pictures are high enough quality to use. 

Some inspiration

My thoughts on books in the loo

Don’t do it. There are no wins, only fails. It’s unhygienic. You can’t antibac a book.

If you find yourself saying ‘It’ll be nice for guests’, things have gone too far. No one shouldn’t worry whether their visitor is having a stimulating time in the loo.

Fun fact: the worst book I’ve seen on display in a loo was ‘The Candida Cookbook’.