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The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski

The Book on the Bookshelf (1999)

by Henry Petroski

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Quite a few years ago, I learned of a book about pencils. I thought it was silly, so I passed it by without a second thought—that is until now. The author of The Pencil has now written a book about bookshelves. Boring you say? I wondered about that, too, but from the first page I was trapped. Henry Petroski is the author of The Book on the Book Shelf. It turns out he also authored a staggeringly long paean to the humble pencil. Need I mention a copy of The Pencil arrived while I was writing this review?

The Book on the Book Shelf is an interesting look at the evolution of book shelves from Alexandria all the way to modern libraries with all sorts of digital tools and equipment to keep track of, sort, and shelve tens of thousands of books. I must admit I was incredulous that such a book existed, or would be widely read, yet, I secretly yearned to find out what it is all about. This may not seem exciting, but the first page put me on a thrilling ride through history. I have said this before about trees, and I gleefully repeat myself, I will never again look at my bookshelves as mere furniture. As Petroski writes, “One evening, while reading in my study, I looked up from my book and saw my bookshelves in a new and different light. Instead of being just places on which to store books, the shelves themselves intrigued me as artifacts in their own right” (ix). This is the first sentence of the preface, and I immediately closed the book, and looked at my shelves. I realized each had a story to tell, and each held remembrances of all the decades we had spent together.

Petroski tells us “over 50,000 books are published each year in America alone” (5). I wish I didn’t know this fact. Now I will never catch up! Every time I visit friends or family, I find time to slip away and examine their shelves. I believe a lot can be learned by examining a library. One time, to my horror, I visited a “friend-of-a-friend’s house and could not find a single book—except for some cookbooks in the kitchen. I was stunned! How awful that must be to live without books. I believe it was Cicero who wrote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Petroski writes, “The bookshelf, like the book, has become an integral part of civilization as we know it, its presence in a home practically defining what it means to be civilized, educated, and refined. Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior” (4). I must admit I take on a reverential calm when I am among my books or merely walking down the hall.

Petroski has chapters on scrolls and manuscripts, printing and binding, and of course stories of the medieval monks bent over an illuminated manuscript. He explains how books became chained to the library tables. He also includes dozens of intriguing drawings of medieval scholars reading at desks with a variety of solutions to storing books in the background.

I think Henry Petroski has tapped a much ignored vein, which, once let loose, will start a renewed interest in bookshelves as much more than mere furniture. The Book on the Book Shelf belongs in every library along with Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Sears Subject Headings, and an O.E.D. 5 stars.

--Jim, 3/30/17 ( )
  rmckeown | Apr 9, 2017 |
Only at Sierra Nevada College 4/24/15
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
While most of this book is interesting I remember putting it down not to savor every morsel but because my eyes couldn't stay open! ( )
  nraichlin | Jan 26, 2016 |
This is a genial informal history of how books are store and shelved. Of necessity it is also a history of how books are produced and sold. Especially interesting is the extensive coverage of the history and development of public and academic libraries.Still, this is a fascinating and entertaining book, full of surprises. Petroski has an extremely clever penchant for finding modern analogies to older practices to clarify and make them seem less peculiar. It's never fair to criticize a book for not being what it doesn't try to be, but given the amount of research and travel that Petrosli evidently went to, I kept wishing for more in depth coverage. Much of the earlier historical material derives from a very few sources which is quoted literally, rather than just cited, in a way that would be more in place in an undergrad essay. Very odd. The illustrations are sloppily identified and derive from just a few secondary sources. ( )
1 vote sjnorquist | Aug 21, 2014 |
I like books and bookcases, and I'm interested in the evolution of everyday items, so I really liked this book. Anyone who doesn't share those interests would undoubtedly find it tedious. Petroski does get a bit repetitive at times, and I think it would have been a slog to read the whole thing at once. I noticed in the other reviews that several people objected to his personal anecdotes, but they were actually one of my favourite aspects of the book. The writing is easy to understand, with light touches of humour (and one excruciating pun). I particularly enjoyed the last chapter, "The Care of Books", which was really more about how people interact with their books and collections, and the appendix on ways of ordering the books on your shelves. ( )
  SylviaC | May 5, 2014 |
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To Karen and Jason, whose bookshelves are full
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My reading chair faces my bookshelves, and I see them every time I look up from the page.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375706399, Paperback)

Consider the book. Though Goodnight Moon and Finnegans Wake differ considerably in content and intended audience, they do share some basic characteristics. They have pages, they're roughly the same shape, and whether in a bookstore, library, or private home, they are generally stored vertically on shelves. Indeed, this is so much the norm that in these days of high-tech printing presses and chain bookstores, it's easy to believe that the book, like the cockroach, remains much the same as it ever was. But as Henry Petroski makes abundantly clear in Book on the Bookshelf, books as we know them have had a long and complex evolution. Indeed, he takes us from the scroll to the codex to the hand-lettered illuminated texts that were so rare and valuable they were chained to lecterns to prevent theft. Along the way he provides plenty of amusing anecdotes about libraries (according to one possibly apocryphal account, the library at Alexandria borrowed the works of the great Greek authors from Athens, had them copied, and then sent the copies back, keeping the originals), book collectors, and the care of books.

Book-lover though he may be, however, Henry Petroski is, first and foremost, an engineer and so, in the end, it is the evolution of bookshelves even more than of books that fascinates him. Pigeonholes for scrolls, book presses containing thousands of chained volumes, rotating lecterns that allowed scholars to peruse more than one book at a time--these are just a few of the ingenious methods readers have devised over the centuries for storing their books: "in cabinets beneath the desks, on shelves in front of them, in triangular attic-like spaces formed under the back-to-back sloped surfaces of desktops or small tabletop lecterns that rested upon a horizontal surface." Placing books vertically on shelves, spines facing outward, is a fairly recent invention, it would seem. Well written as it is, if Book on the Bookshelf were only about books-as-furniture, it would have little appeal to the general reader. Petroski, however, uses this treatise on design to examine the very human motivations that lie behind it. From the example of Samuel Pepys, who refused to have more titles than his library could hold (about 3,000), to an appendix detailing all the ways people organize their collections (by sentimental value, by size, by color, and by price, to name a few of the more unconventional methods), Petroski peppers his account with enough human interest to keep his audience reading from cover to cover. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:45 -0400)

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By the poet laureate of technology. Looks at books, how they have been constructed and stored, especially on bookshelves and in the vertical position. From the papyrus onwards.

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