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The Book on the Bookshelf (1999)

by Henry Petroski

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2,291404,593 (3.77)99
He has been called "the poet laureate of technology" and a writer who is "erudite, witty, thoughtful, and accessible." Now Henry Petroski turns to the subject of books and bookshelves, and wonders whether it was inevitable that books would come to be arranged vertically as they are today on horizontal shelves. As we learn how the ancient scroll became the codex became the volume we are used to, we explore the ways in which the housing of books evolved. Petroski takes us into the pre-Gutenberg world, where books were so scarce they were chained to lecterns for security. He explains how the printing press not only changes the way books were made and shelved, but also increased their availability and transformed book readers into books owners and collectors. He shows us that for a time books were shelved with their spinesin, and it was not until after the arrival of the modern bookcase that she spines facedout. In delightful digressions, Petroski lets Seneca have his say on "the evils of book collecting"; examines the famed collection of Samuel Pepys (only three thousand titles: old discarded to make room for new); and discusses bookselling, book buying, and book collecting through the centuries. Richly illustrated and wonderfully written, this is the ultimate book on the book: how it came to be and how we have come to keep it.… (more)
Recently added byBetsyreader, Oliviab924, MaryGass, private library, ktkeith, stretch, Xenalyte, sanyamakadi, contents
Legacy LibrariesTim Spalding
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    Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles (BookshelfMonstrosity)
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    Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons (Sylak)
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    A Place For Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders (nessreader)
    nessreader: Both flanders + petroski write about the historical development and practicalities of arrangement of libraries.

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English (38)  Spanish (1)  All languages (39)
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
I anticipated a guide to the evolution of the book, perhaps starting with the modern book and tracing back to its origins; or maybe the other way 'round, following precursors as their evolution to the mass printed & mechanically bound book eventually led to the ebook. (TBOTB was published just after the ebook was introduced.) Whichever path he took, if Petroski's treatment was especially good, he would identify significant branchings or variants occurring along the way.

Petroski doesn't quite take either approach. What he does instead is more idiosyncratic and conversational than the methodical discussion I anticipated, though, and makes for an engaging read.

Petroski is meticulous if unpredictable in what facets of book culture he chooses to address. The result isn't comprehensive, but it's what makes the book conversational. There's a wealth of detail in this book, and Petroski skillfully brings the reader along for it. The repetition is typical of conversation, too.

Petroski essentially is looking at the origin of the typical book on his shelf, not any Platonic conception of book. While I'm as interested in what I didn't get from his tour, as I am in what he discussed, I don't deny I thoroughly enjoyed the story he told. Essentially, he's whetted my interest in parchment scrolls and papyri, in history of books and publishing apart from that following Western European experience.


On Books
• Earliest books handwritten and handbound; consequently, no standard edition
• As such, each book extremely valuable; monasteries exchanged for a year to be copied, collections numbered in dozens
• For centuries, hand-written books chained to a rod from the spine; thus opposite edge of text block (facing out) the "fore edge"
• Printed books before modern era (1450 - 1550 CE) known as incunabula ("from the cradle"), anglicised as incunables or simply fifteeners
• Automated binding machine not until mid 1600s
• Unbound books gathered in quires or "signatures" (after letter at bottom aiding in assembly into volume)
• Quire's top page blank to protect title page; once bound, could be folded over fore edge to show title of book (bastard title, fly title, half-title)
• Spacing between words an advent of mechanical printing
• Typically books bound by the buyer not the printer; multiple books would be bound together (unofficial omnibuses)
• Spines used to label book only late in evolution; first on flyleaf, covers

On Shelving
• Books initially shelved horizontally; vertical shelving only after collections sizable such that space and removal of single volume were relevant
• Early book storage methods: chests, armaria, presses (with lids or doors)
• Open shelves predominant only after unchained and upright (and then in rooms with secure doors)
• Library practice asserts new books will begin to be difficult to shelve once a shelf reaches 84% capacity
• Book lists in frames posted on end of bookshelf row

On Libraries
• Carrels (common to academic and public libraries) originated in monastery cathedrals
• Once collections outgrew armaria, lecterns arranged in rooms for reading (with chained books); first without shelves, later adding shelves below and then above lectern
• Lectern arrangement provided more room, more light
• Britain: back-to-back lecterns eventually became stall system (shelves perpendicular to walls with windows between)
• Continent: shelves backed against walls and high windows above
• Later, library included gallery for double-height walls, with windows at ends of hall, or skylights / clerestories
• Reading rooms separate from stacks


B&W diagrams and reproductions throughout ( )
  elenchus | May 22, 2020 |
This book was so humorous. The history was so interesting.
I'll likely make a video about it. ( )
  Wanda-Gambling | May 9, 2020 |
The history and design of book storage will be most appealing to designers and engineers. It’s a little tedious for anyone else, though well researched. The sections concerning the history of various libraries and their creators/protectors was most appealing. Published in 1999, Petroski missed the mark a little concerning the future of e-books but he doggedly pursued his subject to the most minute detail. ( )
  varielle | Feb 24, 2020 |
I especially liked the appendix "Order, Order", because I, and I am sure everyone else here, have encountered every one of the problems of ordering the books on the shelves. I think he omitted the de facto most popular method - wherever I can wedge it in.
1 vote Mapguy314 | Dec 20, 2018 |
Erudite and meticulously researched, The Book on the Bookshelf is also ungodly repetitive and so, often boring.

I read carefully through opening chapters, got captivated by St. Jerome, then read mostly captions of the many fascinating illustrations and
was surprised not to see John Muir's book invention included.

His search for "the perfect bookend" could end with my Grandmother Bell - she crocheted a beautiful rectangle around a brick. ( )
1 vote m.belljackson | Nov 22, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
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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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