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The Book on the Bookshelf Hardcover – September 14, 1999


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (September 14, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375406492
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375406492
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.8 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #946,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

That bookshelves might harbor secret and enchanting lives is a thrilling prospect for any serious reader. What laws of human nature govern our sturdy cases of books? What damning quirks of character glare from a few casually stowed volumes? In this disappointing study, however, Petroski's effort to reveal the "evolution of the bookshelf as we know it" yields few rewards. Pondering the physics of the bookend and the genealogy of the library carrel, this Duke University scholar observes the bookshelf as a piece of the infrastructure undergirding our civilization. We learn that medieval books were chained to their shelves to prevent theft, and that beverage stains have plagued bibliophiles almost since the dawn of the printed word. Admirers of Petroski's earlier works (The Evolution of Useful Things, Remaking the World, etc.) will not be surprised by his exquisite research, or by the gusto with which he plunges into the dustiest of library bins. But the bookshelf proves a more oblique topic than bridges or even pencils, two of Petroski's other interests. The practical construction principles of bookshelves make for rather dull reading, and conjecture about lectern usage in the Middle Ages wears thin. This book is most successful when delving into the gritty aspects of engineering, whether it be the cantilevered forces of library book stacks or the architecture of the British Museum Reading Room. After lingering among such fusty stacks, readers will welcome the whimsical appendix, which proposes arranging one's books alphabetically by the author's first name, or even by the first word of the antepenultimate sentence. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. The author of more than a dozen previous books, he lives in Durham, North Carolina, and Arrowsic, Maine.

Customer Reviews

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It's a pity it couldn't be presented in a more interesting manner.
Harold Francis Jenkins Jr.
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.
J. Vilches
This book is a good complement for those bibliophiles who have read A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.
William W. Conklin

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 15, 1999
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.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By William W. Conklin on October 3, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By David W. Nicholas on August 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By J. Vilches on August 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Karina A. Suarez VINE VOICE on December 20, 2002
Format: Paperback
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.
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