A Tom Ford book sitting on a wooden coffee table.

How To Pick The Right Coffee Table Book

You can make light work of selecting the perfect coffee table book with a few simple suggestions. We’ll give you those and also a little history about coffee tables and coffee table books to impress your friends once they’re done flipping through your tastefully artistic selections.

Small decisions have a major impact on how people perceive us and arguably how we perceive ourselves. Such is the case with coffee table book selection. The books we love to display conspicuously tell stories about us, whether or not their pages are ever explored. 

You can make light work of selecting the perfect coffee table book with a few simple suggestions. We’ll give you those and also a little history about coffee tables and coffee table books to impress your friends once they’re done flipping through your tastefully artistic selections. 

What Is a Coffee Table Book?

Coffee table books are books used more for display than for actual reading. While they may be picked up and skimmed by a guest in your living room, they’re not intended to be read from cover to cover, and they rarely have a storyline. 

A book that is used primarily for decoration may seem a little strange (and more than a little ostentatious), but there’s a deep history behind it. 

Books As Decor

Although there are references to books used solely as decoration as early as the 1500s, coffee table books as we know them today didn’t make their official debut until the 1920s. It was in post-Civil War America that consumerism boomed, and with the boom, the rise of purchasing luxuries, such as books. 

In the earliest days of “bookaflage,” the use of books to adorn one’s home and signify wealth and knowledge, less fortunate souls who couldn’t afford an extensive library would simply craft one from cardboard and paint. 

There are even references to artificial libraries in literary works themselves from this time period. Who could forget the famous “uncut” library in The Great Gatsby

Parlor books, non-books, and grand piano books are all monickers of the coffee table book that began appearing in parlors in the 1920s and 1930s. These books were typically larger (and still are) than could fit on a standard bookshelf and filled primarily with pictures instead of print. 

Why the Coffee Table?

The parlor was the general meeting area in the home where guests would be seated during visits. Sitting interesting books atop the coffee table became a way of promoting one’s own wealth, knowledge, and personality. 

Even today, psychologists agree that coffee table books propagate your personality more than they actually reflect it. If you thought virtue signaling was the stuff of online social networks, think again. 

Although they do serve as conversation starters, the selection of the coffee table books you keep on your table space is more about creating a perception of who you are than providing an engaging, informative piece of literature to your guests.

What About Coffee Tables?

The foundational space used for coffee table books is, of course, the coffee table. Tables used in parlors date back to the 17th century. Overseas, the Brits were using parlor tables for tea time, but Americans wouldn’t catch the trend until the 1920s.

Again, the rise of consumerism in the 1920s and 1930s saw Americans purchasing more lavish furnishings for their homes. Pieces of furniture that weren’t necessities were purchased for comfort. Coffee tables became a staple in the home around which guests and family members could gather with their cups and glasses.

The type of coffee table you select is also a reflection of your personality, but usually a bit more about your preferred artistic style. Do you love modern, sophisticated pieces constructed with unsuspected materials? Perhaps you prefer more traditional, shaker-esque furniture. 

Regardless of your choice, the items you choose to place atop your coffee table are important. 

Picking the Perfect Coffee Table Book

Entering a bookstore, you’ll likely see a section marked “coffee table books.” What started as a way to coyly suggest an air of importance one might not actually have is now a full-fledged, expected piece of home decor with its own genre section. 

Trying to decide which coffee table book speaks to you best can be difficult given the massive amount of options. Here’s how to narrow them down and find the perfect coffee table book for your space (and, of course, your personality).

Do Judge a Book by Its Cover

The cover of a coffee table book is its most important feature aside from the spine and the shape. In terms of selecting your book, the cover will be the piece that your guests see and that you and your family members see on a daily basis.

Here are some items to consider:

  • Ties in. Does the color of the book coordinate with the room?
  • Title appeal. Is the title inspiring? Catchy? Comical? Does it provide a good frame of reference for conversations you’d like to have?
  • Art. The design on the cover of the book should be appealing, especially if you want it to be a conversation starter. Keep in mind that this will also be a book that you see each time you pass by, so it must be one that you enjoy visually. 
  • Size and shape. Although a book with a beautiful cover may be the one that speaks to you the most, if it’s too large or too small for the space you have carved out for it on your table, it simply won’t work.
    Consider, instead, looking for another book with the same theme in a different size. We promise, there’s one available. 
  • The guts. The inside of the book does matter; it just matters less than the outside of the book. The pages of your coffee table book should be filled with eye-catching illustrations or pictures, feel comfortable to the touch, and be easy to turn and navigate. 

Make It Personal

Although the coffee table book, historically, was a bit more about pretense than truth, we find a coffee table book that is tied deeply to your own personal hobbies and interests, makes for better conversation, and creates a better habitat for your life. 

  • Start with hobbies. Love fly fishing? What about horseback riding? Coffee table books with colorful images of your favorite pastimes can elevate your mood and inspire conversations with others about your personal adventures. 
  • Move to art. Even if you don’t consider yourself an art aficionado, you can still appreciate the beauty of a painting or photograph. Choose images that appeal to you and photographs that you love. 
  • Stay away from politics and opinion. Unless you’re ready for a supercharged debate over current events that could potentially sever ties with friends and family, the use of books that are unapologetically opinionated and political is never a good idea. 

Something Old, Something New

Try making your search for coffee table books an adventure itself. Vintage coffee table books make beautiful pieces that give your space a retro feel and look beautiful when paired with new books. 

A thought-provoking combination is a vintage coffee table book with a particular theme or subject paired with a new coffee table book of the same subject. The comparison between the two can be fascinating for anyone who peruses them. 

Make It Useful

There’s no rule that states your coffee table books can’t be as useful as they are decorative. Adult coloring books, a collection of crossword puzzles, brain-teasers, or riddles can all make great choices that also serve as activities.

Some coffee table books offer instructions for games like charades or other activities you can participate in as a group. If you often feel at a loss for how to properly entertain your guests, this can be a godsend. 

Consider Your Display

It may be easiest to select a coffee table book by first determining how you plan to display them. If you plan to lay them flat on your table, in a stack, side by side, or standing up between bookends, you’ll need to know this before you shop. 

If you decide to stand your books upright, you’ll naturally pick books that are smaller than the average coffee table book size. If you’d rather stack them atop one another, you may prefer to select books in descending sizes to create more aesthetic appeal. 

Make It Yours, With Modloft

Your coffee table book is a physical extension of your soul. That may be a bit of a stretch, but both your books and the table you place them on speak to your passions and creativity and say a lot about your personal style. 

Modloft exists to help you fill your space with beautiful, intentional things so you can create a lovely and intentional life. Our coffee tables are unique, functional, and filled with unexpected design features you’ll love. Each piece displays like a piece of intentional art. 

Who knows, you may not even need a book.  



The History of Coffee Table Books | Volt Magazine

Decorative and Democratising: How the Coffee-table Book was Popularised in the Post-war Era | Bridges.Monash.Edu  

History of Coffee Tables | History of Things