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 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..." 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..."
In Britain, the term "coffee table book" has been used (in the current sense) at least since the 19th century, and was still in current usage in the mid-1950s.
David Brower is sometimes credited with inventing the "modern coffee table book". 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.
They have also found uses in propaganda, such as a book on the life of East German leader Walter Ulbricht and another on Albanian leader Enver Hoxha.
As of 2011, Madonna's book Sex remained the most searched for out-of-print coffee table book.