Vanity Books

I recently wrote a post about a cool new website called Wordnik. I have some words and phrases that I would like to contribute to Wordnik because, well,  it might be neat if other people could find a use for them as well.  So I thought I would start my contributions here. The first phrase I’d like to work on is “Vanity Books.”

Vanity Books: These are books that you have on your bookshelf that you a) have never read, b) have no intent of reading, and c) look good as decorative items, or d) (more commonly) make you look good. I certainly did not make up this phrase, and in fact Wordnik has an entry for it already, but their entry needs some work so I think I might add a few of my ideas to it.

We have numerous vanity books in my house, many of them quite old, and I like to make fun of us for having them. I also like to look at them, but in fact, I rarely read them. My favorite vanity book is titled Famous Authors and the Best Literature of England and America.


The book is old (copyright 1897), it’s 552 pages (the “best literature” in only 552 pages? Priceless!), and it has pretty pictures of authors and houses and fields and such (in color, no less). It contains two volumes  within the single book: Volume I is the best literature from England and Volume II is the best literature from America, of course. It also has quite possibly the world’s longest subtitle:


The lives of English and American authors in story form. Their portraits, their homes and their personal traits. How they worked and what they wrote.

Together with

Choice Selections From Their Writings


The great poets of England and America, famous novelists, distinguished essayists and historians, our humorists, noted journalists and magazine contributors, statesmen in literature, noted women in literature, popular writers for young people, great orators and public lecturers.


Thank god they got those “noted women” in there! Phew – that was close!

If you saw this book on my shelf and thumbed through it, wouldn’t you think I was extremely well-read (in the canon, anyway)?

I like this vanity book for a lot of reasons though, including the fact that it paints an interesting social-historical picture of what “great literature” was all about in the late 1800s.  Also, the book looks well-loved (meaning it’s falling apart) and it smells musty and tabacco-y, like it spent 75 years in a pipe-smoking, leather-patched professor’s office, probably as his vanity book, before being hauled off to an antique store when he died and his kids had no use for his museum-quality artifacts. I also like it because my mom and dad bought it for me as a college graduation present – the perfect present for an English major who likes books and used furniture.

When I took it out today to look at it again, I thought that if I actually were to read it someday, I could learn a few more words and phrases that I could use to feed my Wordnik habit, but I honestly do not have plans to read it anytime soon (I have too many other books waiting in line).  So for now, it will sit quietly but regally next to my second favorite vanity book, an 1884 edition of History of the United States in Words of One Syllable (I kid you not: this is the actual title). Indeed, apparently in 1884 one could learn the entire complex history of a country plagued by colonialism, war, disease, politics, racism, poverty, and sacrifice by reading words of only one syllable. Sounds like an antique version of Twitter, if you ask me.


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