Evolutionary psychology suggests that a big personal library is not unlike the plumage of a peacock -- a signal of one's fitness as a mate, in this case mental fitness. Darwinian theory also says that in cases where true signals of fitness exist for a species, you'll find fakers. Enter Books by the Foot, an online service that lets anyone with shelf space and a credit card create a literary display that will impress -- at least until your visitors start asking too many nosy questions.
A study full of modern cloth hardbacks is an affordable option, running only $6.99 per linear foot (Books by the Foot prices the way Home Depot does), while the Vintage Club Look is a more daunting $49.99. You can even choose books that won't fit in your shelves -- the Oversize/Coffeetable collection -- and of course you can specify color scheme.
The wisdom of purchasing multiple shelves' worth of Readers Digest Condensed Books seems dubious, however: If you're not going to read them in the first place, why not plump for the full versions? This may explain why they're on sale now for $9.99, marked down from $29.99.
Books by the Foot is hardly just for poseurs: It markets to owners of rental units and lodges and other "clients too busy to build their own libraries." Still, the literary quotations that adorn the Web site ("A room without books is like a body without a soul" -- Cicero) take on vaguely creepy overtones when you realize that these are Potemkin libraries we're talking about.
The company is advertising in the New Yorker, which makes you wonder what its proprietors think about that magazine's subscribers.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.