On Coffee Table Books

When I dream of my own home, the first image that comes to mind is a steaming cup of coffee sitting cozily beside a stack of books on a rustic little table. There is something so welcoming about a well-placed mug and book on a coffee table; it seems to say to any and all who enter, “Sit, stay and enjoy for a while!”

While I often lose myself in overly grand philosophies of beauty, truth, and goodness, I am finding that it is more often our everyday experiences of these exemplars that form our minds, hearts, and spirits. Coffee table books are a great example of this! I think that ideal coffee table books must not simply be excellent books, but also accessible, aesthetic, and awakening. Featuring such well-chosen books on your coffee table is a simple but effective way to fill your life with a deeper appreciation of truth, sweeter engagement with beauty, and a refreshed vision of goodness.

“Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper, as though these things belonged to a different order of value from a church by Bramante or a Shakespeare sonnet. Yet these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives, and far more intricately involved in our own rational decisions, than the great works which (if we are lucky) occupy our leisure hours. They are part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility is both expressed and confirmed in them.”

(Excerpt From
Beauty: A Very Short Introduction
Roger Scruton)

Coffee table books are often intended to fill a spare moment or perhaps spark a conversation. Books with lots of illustrations, smaller selections of text, and engaging layouts are always a great bet. They should provide entertainment and perhaps education in manageable chunks. I love Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals for this reason. In it, he details in a few paragraphs the creative habits of great artists. While I have not read it cover-to-cover, it has filled my spare moments with delightful and concise portraits of my favorite composers and writers. I’ve learned a great deal about humanity and creativity from this book, and it has expanded my mind in mere moments.

Coffee table books should also be aesthetic. After all, these books are just as much a piece of decoration as they are a source of information. For years, I admired Robert MacFarlane’s The Lost Words and was thrilled when I finally received a copy as a gift. Admittedly, I haven’t read the whole thing yet, though not at all because it is not interesting. Rather, I am so captivated by the sheer beauty of its fonts, pictures, and poems that I spend lengthy amounts of time on each page. Such books can add an appealing softness to your home, providing an enduring loveliness in both their words and their looks.

Perhaps most importantly, though, I believe that coffee table books (and just books in general) should reawaken in us a sense of goodness (not merely moral goodness, but an awareness of how things ought to be and, thus, an appreciation of what is truly good). Often when we flip through coffee table books, we do so in a moment of listlessness or apathy, just waiting for the next activity to begin or a conversation to arise. Such books, then, should revive us, sending us back into action, conversation, and society in better—more intentional, peaceful, and grateful—spirits. I adore this edition of Kierkegaard’s Three Godly Discourses because it is both a contemplation on the Sermon on the Mount and a collection of sacred art by a Danish artist I had the pleasure to meet a few years ago:


In addition to the three books I mentioned above, I highly recommend the following:

Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet and Stranger Planet: Portraying human activities from an extraterrestrial perspective, these colorful comics remind us of the humor and wonder of ordinary life. Adorable, cheerful, and imaginative, these small volumes are well-worth the investment.

Other Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley: This gorgeous volume provides a journey through other cultures, sharing beautiful words to enhance not only our vocabularies, but our everyday understanding of existence. A perfect gift for your bookish friends, Other Wordy is a joy to behold, read, and put into practice.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, edited by Chris Van Allsburg: In this updated edition, fourteen bestselling authors collaborated to write stories based upon the classic “Harris Burdick” illustrations. From hilarious to heartbreaking, each of these short stories enhances the intrigue of the original pictures, providing food for thought as well as maintaining the gorgeous illustrations that made this volume a favorite.

I am still on the hunt for coffee table books, so if you have any suggestions, do leave a comment or send me an email! My goal is to discover so many delightful coffee table books that the table itself becomes unnecessary.

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