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Henry Petroski (1942–2023)

Author of The Book on the Bookshelf

25+ Works 8,878 Members 126 Reviews 20 Favorited

About the Author

Henry Petroski is an American engineer with wide-ranging historical and sociocultural interests. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1968, and became Aleksandar S. Vesic professor and chair of the Department of Civil and show more Environmental Engineering at Duke University. Petroski teaches traditional engineering subjects, as well as courses for nonengineering students, that place the field in a broad social context. One of the major themes that transcends his technical and nontechnical publications is the role of failure and its contribution to successful design. This is the central theme in his study To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, which is accessible to both engineers and general readers. This theme is also incorporated into Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990), which relates the history of the pencil to broader sociocultural themes. The theme is expanded further, illustrating the relationship of engineering to our everyday life in The Evolution of Useful Things (1992). Petroski's most recent book, Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering, is planned for publication in 1994. After that, he will begin a study of the complex interrelationships between engineering and culture. Widely recognized and supported by both the technical and humanities communities, Petroski's work has effectively conveyed the richness and essence of engineering in its societal context for the general reader. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: United States Department of Energy

Works by Henry Petroski

The Book on the Bookshelf (1999) 2,553 copies
The Evolution of Useful Things (1992) 1,532 copies

Associated Works


Common Knowledge



I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did, but it seemed that for every one interesting bit, there were ten extreme yawners. I think it's possible for an author to give us tooo much information on a subject, and this author is guilty of just that. He gave so much detail on several subjects that they quickly went from intriguing to very dull.

Still, there was quite a lot to think about! I still struggle with the idea that books were stored with the spine in for so many centuries. All the reasons for storing books any way but spine out are just so nonsensical to me. It's hard to believe the space-saving way took so long to catch on!

I thought the Ramelli wheel was genius and it would not be impractical to set a desk beside for scholarly use.

I also did not realize that books weren’t purchased bound in the 17th c. No wonder books were so valued and difficult for the average laborer to afford very many.

Some of the stories about the different ways elite people treated books were pretty disgusting (Humphrey Davy ripping out pages as he read, using books as placemats, etc.). Such a waste to treat books badly---I was always taught to be careful with my books and was grounded from them if I didn't.
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classyhomemaker | 43 other reviews | Dec 11, 2023 |
Most of us take for granted that our books are vertical on our shelves with the spines facing out, but Henry Petroski, inveterately curious engineer, didn't. As a result, readers are guided along the astonishing evolution from papyrus scrolls boxed at Alexandria to upright books shelved at the Library of Congress. Unimpeachably researched, enviably written, and charmed with anecdotes from Seneca to Samuel Pepys to a nineteenth-century bibliophile who had to climb over his books to get into bed, The Book on the Bookshelf is indispensable for anyone who loves books.… (more)
petervanbeveren | 43 other reviews | Dec 2, 2023 |
includes historic illustrations, how to build a bookshelf
betty_s | 43 other reviews | Sep 7, 2023 |
Great book on everyday design history of conmon things. Fun to read for anyone.
kslade | 2 other reviews | Dec 8, 2022 |



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