Coffee Table Book
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Coffee Table Book
Coffee table book on a coffee table

A coffee table book is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose purpose is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one entertains guests and from which it can serve to inspire conversation. Subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial (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 up the book 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 a 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 at Lviv University in the 1930s and 1940s.


The concept of a book intended essentially for display over perusal was mentioned by Michel de Montaigne in his 1581 essay "Upon Some Verses of Virgil": "I am vexed that my Essays only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window..."[1] 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..."[2]

In Britain, the term "coffee table book" 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]

David Brower is sometimes credited with inventing the "modern coffee table book".[5] 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.[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]

As of 2011, Madonna's book Sex remained the most searched for out-of-print coffee table book.[9]

In popular culture

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[10] -- its cover was designed to look as if the book could double as a coffee table.
  • In Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke after Barbara Gordon was shot and fell on the coffee table smashing it completely, the Joker implies that she thought she was a coffee table edition, which is, according to him, a common psychological complaint amongst ex-librarians.
  • 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. Elaine Benes, who worked for Pendant Publishing, did not think that Kramer's idea was any good, but her boss learned about it and became intrigued enough to turn it into a book.
  • In the Family Guy episode "You Can't Do That on Television, Peter", Peter states that he, Joe Swanson and Glen Quagmire are making a coffee table book of lesbian butts in 1980s jeans.
  • Late-night talk show Conan features a sketch called "Coffee Table Books That Didn't Sell", in which Conan O'Brien reviews several (fake) coffee table books with odd and nonsensical premises, such as "Animals on Meth" and "Movie Stars With Their Eyes Pushed Closer Together".


  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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