Coffee table book

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Coffee table with coffee table book

A coffee table book is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose place is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one would entertain guests and from which it can act to inspire conversation. Subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial or a photo-book. Pages consist mainly of photographs and illustrations, accompanied by captions and small blocks of text, as opposed to long prose. Since they are aimed at anyone who might pick the book up for a light read, the analysis inside is often more basic and with less jargon than other books on the subject. Because of this, the term "coffee table book" can be used pejoratively to indicate a superficial approach to the subject.

In the field of mathematics, a coffee table book is usually a notebook containing a number of mathematical problems and theorems contributed by community meeting in a particular place, or connected by a common scientific interest. One of the most famous was the Scottish Book created by mathematicians working on the University of Lvov.


David R. Brower is sometimes credited with inventing the "modern coffee table book"[1] While serving as executive director of the Sierra Club, he had the idea for a series of books that combined nature photography and writings on nature, with, as he put it, "a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance." The first such book, "This is the American Earth", with photographs by Ansel Adams and others and text by Nancy Newhall, was published in 1960; the series became known as the "Exhibit Format" series, with 20 titles eventually published.[2]

In Britain, however, the term has been used (in the current sense) at least since the 19th century,[3] and was still in current usage in the mid-1950s,[4] contemporary with Brower's 1960 publication. It may be that Brower thus merely introduced the term to the United States.

The concept of a book intended essentially for display over perusal was mentioned much earlier by Michel de Montaigne in his essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil, first published in 1580: "I am vexed that my Essays only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window..."[5] Almost two centuries later, Laurence Sterne in his 1759 comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman advanced the more lighthearted view that "As my life and opinions are likely to make some noise in the world, and... be no less read than the Pilgrim's Progress itself- and, in the end, prove the very thing Montaigne dreaded his Essays should turn out, that is, a book for a parlour window..."[6]

They have also found uses in propaganda, such as a book on the life of East German leader Walter Ulbricht[7] and another on Albanian leader Enver Hoxha.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

Coffee table books have been featured in many areas of popular culture.

  • In the 1980s, British comedy duo Smith and Jones released The lavishly-tooled Smith and Jones Coffee Table Book[9] — its cover was designed to look as if the book could double as a coffee table.
  • The fifth season (1993–1994) of the sitcom Seinfeld included a story arc involving Kramer wanting to write a coffee table book about coffee tables. His idea was for the coffee table book to have legs built into the back cover and coasters built into the front cover, so the book itself could be turned into a small coffee table.
  • Madonna's "Sex Book" is the best-selling coffee table book in history, although it is out of print.


  1. ^ "Harold Wood Presentation on H.R. 2715 - LeConte Memorial Lodge". 2003-11-15. Retrieved 2014-03-28. 
  2. ^ "Natural Visions - Nature on the Coffee Table". 
  3. ^ "Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland - Google Books". Retrieved 2014-03-28. 
  4. ^ "Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review - Google Books". Retrieved 2014-03-28. 
  5. ^ "Essays by Michel de Montaigne". Retrieved 2014-03-28. 
  6. ^ "The novels of Laurence Sterne (Volume 1)" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-03-28. 
  7. ^ "Walter Ulbricht — ein Leben für Deutschland, excerpts from the German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College". Retrieved 2014-03-28. 
  8. ^ Enver Hoxha: 1908-1985. Tirana: Institute of Marxist-Leninist Studies at the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania. 1986.
  9. ^ Jones, Griff Rhys; P. R. McGrath; Clive Anderson (1986). The lavishly-tooled Smith and Jones Coffee Table Book. ISBN 0-00-637123-X.