Issue: CC102
1st January 2021

Not for reading

Fake books and their hidden contents

Snuff boxes

I think the idea of fake books is right up there with priest holes in Tudor buildings. Chopping out the middle of an old book to hide some trinket inside is something many of us probably tried as children, before realising it was quite hard work and would use quite a lot of glue. I actually made one fairly recently to hide my mobile phone inside when working at 1940s events. Photographers seem to find a person in period dress using a mobile phone rather amusing and seeing said pictures pop up online was making me rather irritable.

Of course, these are not technically fake books, but just books that you’re never going to be able to read again. Fake books are jewellery boxes, purses, flasks, sewing kits and all sorts of things that have been disguised as books. They’d also include levers disguised as books to enter the aforementioned priest hole (though these, being attached to walls, are not included here).

Mini wallet
Wax tapers and figurines

Fake Books: The Art of Bibliophilic Deceit contains 768 fake books, selected from Armin Müller’s collection of over 1500. Flicking through the images you realise what a curiously common object a fake book is.

So what’s the appeal of disguising an everyday object as a book? A book lends itself to being something else, both practically (as a hinged rectangular container) and imaginatively – to open a book is to walk the path of discovery, to discover its secrets. There’s also something wonderfully modern and clutter-free in being able to tuck your matchbox/card game away on the book shelf.

Money boxes

There’s a history of fake books. As Fake Books makes reference to, walls of fake books would give the impression that a library/museum was better stocked than it was. Book wallpapers are always popular. A well stocked bookshelf is a sign of wealth and intellect. In historic homes a towering library is as much a cause for awe as the paintings and expensive ornaments. To read is to be educated.  This has never been more evident  as during lockdown as we peered with interest at the carefully curated bookshelf backgrounds behind politicians and journalists on televised Zoom calls. Did their contents give validity to the arguments their owners were making? Trump has reportedly never read a single book in his adult life. Make of that what you will.

“Fake books are primarily intended to deceive the eye and surprise people, because what they present is not what you imagine.”

I suspect in most cases a fake book is purchased as a novelty item. As an amusing gift or for an appealing piece of cover art. There’s no real reason why anyone should need to disguise a sewing kit or flower vase. So for me that makes the most interesting examples in Fake Books the ones where I can imagine they would play a part in some clever deception, be it an international spy ring or an alcoholic vicar. Sadly, any genuine intrigue or deceit was purely of my own imagination as there’s no such anecdotes to be found alongside the photography.

Booze containers
Book boxes

There are varying levels of deception to be found. There are examples of nicely made ‘books’ that  would genuinely deceive until their contents were revealed, some that would deceive at a glance and others which I personally didn’t consider to be within the remit – Christmas ornaments and lockets that depict books but aren’t pretending to be books.

Fake Books: The Art of Bibliophilic Deceit is a book about a collection. There’s a couple of texts – an introduction on types of fake books and their construction, and an epilogue musing on the nature of bibliophilic deceit. Each chapter opens with a short and charming anecdote relating to the author’s acquisition of objects.

The book exists not to be particularly educating or serve as a guide for collectors, but to be a visual compendium on a subject that probably hasn’t been documented before. I suspect the book will be of most interest to book artists and collectors of novelty items.

I think the most interesting example in the collection, which will be appreciated by book artists and designers, is the wood library. Each volume is made from a different tree, with its bark as the spine and holding the leaves and seeds. Very nicely done.

“Touching the volumes allows the experience of the weight as well as the hardness and structure of the wood by hand.”

Timber library

The ‘books’ are categorised by their function and there’s multiple examples of each (over a dozen lighters for example). Some of the photos aren’t as sharp as they could be but not so many that it detracts from enjoying the book.

Fake Books: The Art of Bibliophilic Deceit
Armin Müller
Published by Benteli, 2020
Hardback, 25x32cm, 352 pages, 800 illustrations.
ISBN: 9783716518595, RRP €58