‘It is a spectator sport to look at someone else’s books, if not an act of voyeurism or armchair psychology,” wrote Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf.

Yet, when the books don’t belong to an individual, but rather to a hotel, it is not armchair psychology — it is an invitation to a chance encounter. Which book might catch your eye from the shelves at the Library at the B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa in Zurich, where guests can browse some 33,000 books? What books might be in your room in the Library Hotel in New York where each floor celebrates one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and a reading room is open 24 hours? Which volume will be brought to your table at the Gryphon, a cafe in Savannah, Georgia, where diners receive their bill tucked inside the pages of a book? Might any of these books change your trip, your mind, your life?

Never mind that people are increasingly reading books on tablets and smartphones: Hotels and restaurants around the world have made bound books a centrepiece of their themes and decor, just as home decorators have long anchored rooms with books displayed in any number of ways — by colour, subject, height, chronology, spines that face out or in, stacked beside a bed, or made into a coffee table.

None of this is new. Rather, decorating with books is positively ancient.

Some hotels decorate with elaborate bookshelves; some with stacks of coffee table books. Others lean a few novels on a shelf, or make a vignette with an objet d’art. The arrangements that have soul are obvious to any book lover; the books are chosen and displayed so as to encourage a guest to crack one open, to reach for the book that seems to whisper, “I’ve been waiting for you to come along”.

Oregon has several such spots, such as the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, where rooms are separated into Best Sellers, Classic and Novels, and there’s a library but no WiFi or television in the rooms. There’s also the Heathman Hotel in Portland, which, with more than 2,700 books, has one of the largest autographed libraries in the world in partnership with Powell’s Books, the country’s largest independent bookstore.

Yet, a hotel need not have a library to offer guests entertaining, meaningful or simply practical books. At the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok last summer, I was grateful for the small pile of hardcovers about the city that were in my room. This winter, the Royalton New York is offering a “Fireside package” that includes an in-room library (courtesy of the McNally Jackson independent bookshop) with novels and short stories, such as the Complete Stories of Truman Capote and Teresa Carpenter’s New York Diaries.

Are displays of books a way to signify knowledge, as books in still-life paintings did (and digital bookshelves on Facebook do today)? After all, Marie Kondo, the author of the best-selling book on decluttering, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, wrote: “People with large book collections are almost always diligent learners.” Or are some of them posing?

Consider what Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard and the author of Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, once wrote in the New York Times: “More than a millennium before print, Seneca criticised ‘those who displayed scrolls with decorated knobs and coloured labels rather than reading them,’ noting, ‘It is in the homes of the idlest men that you find the biggest libraries’.”

In his book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, explains that while bookcases are excellent snooping sites, he thinks the size of the book collection is less important than its variation. A varied book collection, he said, speaks of a person’s unconventionality and openness to experiences.

— New York Times News Service

Stephanie Rosenbloom is a columnist.