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The Book on the Bookshelf [Kindle Edition]

Henry Petroski
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

From the author of the highly praised The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things comes another captivating history of the seemingly mundane: the book and its storage.

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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Amazon Review

Consider the book. Though Goodnight Moon and Finnegan's 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 The 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 The 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 organise their collections (by sentimental value, by size, by colour, 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

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can a bookshelf be interesting? You bet! 2 May 2001
By A Customer
I bought this book out of curiosity. I am really interested in the history of books and reading and this seemed like a natural progression.
My friends laugh when I say that I am reading a book about the history of bookshelves but I loved it!
To find out about how reading rooms have been planned with light and storage considerations and to see some of the fantastic inventions to help academics in their study of text was a real revelation. It made me realise that there was so much more to this piece of furniture that I take for granted. I learnt so much and intend to continue reading around the subject. More books like this please!
I dream of a bookshelf lined room and promise to look at the shelves as well as the books from now on!!!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The co-evolution of artifacts 15 Dec. 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
We may think that how books are stored is a mundane topic. But Petroski shows how both the book and its means of storage co-evolved, with features we take for granted about books (e.g., labels on spines, or titles) being in part due to the need to store them in growing numbers. It was fun to have an engineer's perspective on this issue, though his overall scholarship is impressive. There is something new and interesting here for all but the most specialized readers.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The ordinary is made fascinating. 3 Oct. 1999
By William W. Conklin - Published on
This book is thoroughly researched, well illustrated and written without engineering jargon so that the general reader will enjoy the story of the book and the shelf. I will forever look at libraries with renewed appreciation for not only their content but their structure. This book is a good complement for those bibliophiles who have read A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book for obsessive bibliophiles 30 Aug. 2003
By David W. Nicholas - Published on
The Book on the Bookshelf is Henry Petroski's sly look at how books are stored, and have been stored for centuries. It's sly, in part, because to tell you this he has to tell you the history of the book itself, and this of course leads him off in different directions. You learn much about not only books, and bookshelves, but scrolls, printing, various sorting systems, printing and spelling conventions over the years, and various other minutiae. If you're interested in this sort of thing, like I was, it's very interesting. I was fascinated to read, for instance, that the British publishing industry changed about a decade ago, and began printing their titles on the spines of books oriented the same way we do it. Previously they had printed the titles upside down (from our point of view) and the two books I'm referring to are old enough to display this. I'd noted it, but never knew why they were like that. Now I do. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's interested in books, publishing, and the history of those things. I will warn you that the author does tend to get into his subject, digress a bit, and run away with his topic now and again, but I generally found this characteristic charming rather than annoying.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You'll never look at your library in the same way again 21 Dec. 2002
By Karina A Suarez - Published on
I came across Henry Petrosky's "The book on the bookshelf" when I was researching re-decorating options for my own library; and bought it, thinking I was buying just another work on general booklore and memorabilia. What an agreeable surprise when I discovered this is not such a book, but an exploration on the evolution of the bookshelf. For someone like me at that point in time, it was kismet.
Petroski takes us from the earliest historical evidence of the existence of bookshelves and libraries; exploring ancient lands, such as Egypt and the great lost library of Alexandria, the storing of scrolls in Ancient Rome, the chained manuscripts that monks copied and sweated over for months during the Middle Ages; to our modern computerized systems. Library design is studied and analyzed to the last detail using as examples the oldest, most celebrated libraries of our time, such as Oxford's Bodleian Library, Spain's El Escorial, the Vatican Library, and our very own Library of Congress. He even dares to imagine the "library of the future", fully digitalized, with computers at the base of each set of book stacks at the user's disposal for fast, easy researching of titles. He writes as a scientist and his ability to create a resolutely valid hypothesis out of what many would call an insignificant theme is remarkable. The book closes with an appendix on myriad methods on how to organize one's own private library bookshelves, an extended bibliography, and a full reference list of excellent engravings, blueprints and photos reproduced throughout.
As a booklover and collector, I found "The book on the bookshelf" interesting and with a fresh point of view on a usually languid, most talked about subject.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Got Bookshelves? Ever Think About Them? 6 Aug. 2004
By J. Vilches - Published on
I enjoyed this meticulously researched history of the physical design of books, bookshelves and libraries. Petroski follows the evolution of book storage from pigeonholes used to store scrolls to modern space-saving "moveable-aisle" stacks. In the process, he also covers the changes in the physical design of books themselves and the ever-present challenges faced by libraries throughout the ages as more and more books appear on their shelves. An appendix covers a host of possible methods of organizing your personal book collection - this section is easily the most amusing part of the book.

Petroski includes interesting anecdotes and helpful illustrations to liven up this sometimes dry subject area. While not a gripping book, it definitely succeeds as a thoughtful study full of interesting nuggets of history. It's obvious that obsessive book lovers throughout the ages have put a lot of thought into storing their collections.

If you're not particularly interested in why books were once shelved spine in, or how library layouts have changed over the years, then this book will probably not hold your interest. Personally, I have fond and vivid memories of libraries, especially the one from my childhood. This book definitely has me looking at libraries in a whole new light - I'll never be able to walk into one again without studying the way it's laid out.
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