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The Book on the Bookshelf

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"A fascinating history of two related common objects, impeccably documented and beautifully illustrated." —Civilization Henry Petroski, "the poet laureate of technology" and author of the highly acclaimed The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things now sets his sights on perhaps the greatest technological advances of the last two thousand years: the making and storing of "A fascinating history of two related common objects, impeccably documented and beautifully illustrated." —Civilization Henry Petroski, "the poet laureate of technology" and author of the highly acclaimed The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things now sets his sights on perhaps the greatest technological advances of the last two thousand years: the making and storing of books—from papyrus scrolls to precious medieval codices to the book as we know it, from the great library at Alexandria to monastic cells to the Library of Congress. As writing advanced, and with it broader literacy, the development of the book was seemingly inevitable. And as books became more common, the question of where and how to store them became more pertinent. But how did we come from continuous sheets rolled on spools to the ubiquitous portable item you are holding in your hand? And how did books come to be restored and displayed vertically and spine out on shelves? Henry Petroski answers these and virtually every other question we might have about books as he contemplates the history of the book on bookshelf with his inimitable subtle analysis and intriguing detail. "After reading this book, you will not look at a book or a bookshelf in the same way." —The Seattle Times


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"A fascinating history of two related common objects, impeccably documented and beautifully illustrated." —Civilization Henry Petroski, "the poet laureate of technology" and author of the highly acclaimed The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things now sets his sights on perhaps the greatest technological advances of the last two thousand years: the making and storing of "A fascinating history of two related common objects, impeccably documented and beautifully illustrated." —Civilization Henry Petroski, "the poet laureate of technology" and author of the highly acclaimed The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things now sets his sights on perhaps the greatest technological advances of the last two thousand years: the making and storing of books—from papyrus scrolls to precious medieval codices to the book as we know it, from the great library at Alexandria to monastic cells to the Library of Congress. As writing advanced, and with it broader literacy, the development of the book was seemingly inevitable. And as books became more common, the question of where and how to store them became more pertinent. But how did we come from continuous sheets rolled on spools to the ubiquitous portable item you are holding in your hand? And how did books come to be restored and displayed vertically and spine out on shelves? Henry Petroski answers these and virtually every other question we might have about books as he contemplates the history of the book on bookshelf with his inimitable subtle analysis and intriguing detail. "After reading this book, you will not look at a book or a bookshelf in the same way." —The Seattle Times

30 review for The Book on the Bookshelf

  1. 4 out of 5

    Aerin

    Henry Petroski is fascinated by the design of everyday objects, and how the seemingly-simple technology of items like pencils, forks, and paperclips have evolved and improved over time. In this volume, he examines the history of - not books per se - but books on bookshelves, which is a very different topic. If you are seeking a deeper understanding of printing and binding methods, or the impact of literature and literacy on human culture, you won't find much here. But if you've ever wondered why Henry Petroski is fascinated by the design of everyday objects, and how the seemingly-simple technology of items like pencils, forks, and paperclips have evolved and improved over time. In this volume, he examines the history of - not books per se - but books on bookshelves, which is a very different topic. If you are seeking a deeper understanding of printing and binding methods, or the impact of literature and literacy on human culture, you won't find much here. But if you've ever wondered why we store books the way we do - vertically, spine-out, following some purposeful order, in neat rows along shelves custom-made for the purpose - and how this storage system influenced the design of books (and vice versa), this treatise is absolutely thrilling. So yes, I am a dork who is thrilled by dorky things. But still, this topic caught me off guard. Like many of Petroski's subjects, bookshelves were something I'd taken utterly for granted and - had I thought about them at all - figured must exist in their current form because how else could you possibly store books? But Petroski is an engineer, and he never takes anything designed by humans for granted. In particular, he is fascinated by infrastructure, noting that it tends to go unnoticed when designed well. "Once in place and with books upon it, the bookshelf has no moving parts and no obvious function except to stay where it is and support a line of books. It is like a common bridge on a small country road, there but not there to all who use it every day. Yet let the bridge be washed out in a flood, and suddenly it becomes the most important topic of discussion in the county. So it is with technology generally: it is most present in its absence." Despite how obvious they may seem, bookshelves are a relatively recent and innovative type of infrastructure, developed as the need to house more and more books in an accessible way increased over the past few centuries. Before books, when most written material was stored in volumes (i.e., scrolls), a shelving system would be useless. The Library at Alexandria probably used pigeonholes or boxes. Even when codices (i.e., books) became standard, libraries typically held a maximum of a few hundred, which were usually kept locked in trunks or cabinets to deter thieves. Only later in the Middle Ages, when monastery libraries started to outgrow their storage systems, did books start to be arrayed upright on shelves - but with the spines facing backward, since a chain would be attached to the front edge of the book linking it securely to the shelf. (Again, to deter thieves - prior to the printing press, books were expensive.) And this is all only the tip of the iceberg. I never knew, for instance, how critical natural light was to the design of all libraries and bookstacks until electricity became commonplace. Using any fire-based method of illumination would be utterly irresponsible in a room full of priceless and highly-flammable books, so libraries were always designed around their windows, and only used during daylight hours. I also never knew that in the early days of printed books, most of them were sold unbound, looking like oversized magazines. The collector would then take this sheaf to his favorite bookbinder. This is why so many personal libraries of a few centuries ago consist of uniform-looking leatherbound books. These books weren't bought as sets, they were just bound by the same binder. And there is so, so much more to this story. If you love books as objects, if a room full of bookshelves never fails to enthrall you, if you are curious about the history of the technology you use every day (in other words, if you are my kind of nerd), you will find much to fascinate you in this book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    If there's one thing I'm taking away from Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, it's the fact that no technology is so basic as to be self-evident. I always thought of the humble bookshelf as a foregone conclusion: faced with a bunch of narrow rectangular solids, it only makes sense to place them vertically, front-to-back along a horizontal surface, with some kind of identifying label along their edges, yes? Petroski's book, a history of the development of book storage technology in the We If there's one thing I'm taking away from Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, it's the fact that no technology is so basic as to be self-evident. I always thought of the humble bookshelf as a foregone conclusion: faced with a bunch of narrow rectangular solids, it only makes sense to place them vertically, front-to-back along a horizontal surface, with some kind of identifying label along their edges, yes? Petroski's book, a history of the development of book storage technology in the West, entertainingly disproves this assumption. Petroski points out that, given the high value of early books, which were each hand-lettered and often bound between jewel-encrusted covers, a very secure storage technique was needed. In pre- and early medieval monasteries and universities, the few books available were kept in steamer-type trunks with multiple (often three) locks, each with a different key. The librarian would keep one key, and two other responsible persons would have the other two, so that all three key-keepers would need to congregate at the book trunk anytime someone wanted to withdraw a book. In this way, accountability would also be maintained: at least three people would witness each book withdrawal, which would minimize lost volumes. Not only that, but the ritual of book return is enough to chill the blood of a person like me, who nearly always returns her library books shockingly late, often without having read them: The librarian shall read a statement as to the manner in which brethren have had books during the past year. As each brother hears his name pronounced he is to give back the book which had been entrusted to him for reading; and he whose conscience accuses him of not having read the book through which he had received, is to fall on his face, confess his fault, and entreat forgiveness. Of course, I might be more motivated to finish my library books if I knew I would have to fall on my face and beg to be pardoned. As more books accumulated, and architecture changed, the locked chest evolved into a system of tilted lecterns, with or without seats, to which individual books were attached with iron chains. The tradition of chained libraries was apparently preserved for a shockingly long time in some places; the last college in Oxford to remove the chains from their books did so in 1799. At first the books were left open or closed on their designated lecterns, but as library collections grew, each lectern began to have multiple books. This necessitated shelves added above the lecterns themselves, where chained books could be lain when not being consulted. These shelves are the ancestors of the modern bookshelf. But lots of things still had yet to evolve about book shelving before it would be recognizably "modern." Books were usually shelved horizontally in piles, for example, and even when space considerations forced people to start shelving them vertically, the chains attached to their covers dictated that they be placed with their fore-edges, rather than their spines, facing outward. Based on an informal sampling of my friends and acquaintances, this is the single most disturbing part of Petroski's book. People react strongly to the idea of shelving books spine-inward; comments like "that's just wrong" and "I don't like to think about it" kept cropping up when I mentioned the practice. But in addition to the chains, which would have scraped the covers of the neighboring books if the spines had been faced out, there are other reasons that a fore-edge first shelving technique makes sense. There was no identifying information on the spines of books, for example, until well into the seventeenth century. For a long time, they were completely unadorned, in stark contrast to the elaborate front and back covers. In addition, Petroski brings up the fascinating point that, even when they began to be decorated, The exoskeletal spine, which holds up the innards of the book structurally...was still the machinery of a book...and so it continued to be the part that was hidden as much as possible, pushed into the dark recesses of bookshelves, out of sight. Shelving books with their spines inward must have seemed as natural and appropriate a thing to do as to put the winding machinery of a clock toward the wall or behind a door, or both. This is so interesting to me. I would, of course, never think of positioning a computer or desk lamp so that its electrical cords were on conspicuous display, and medieval and Renaissance folks apparently felt the same way about book spines. I wonder what this reaction, so seemingly universal, is about. Why do we find unattractive the parts of our technology that make it work? Do we only stop feeling put off by the functional/structural elements of a thing when we no longer perceive it as "technology"? The idea that book spines, so infinitely appealing to me now, once seemed distasteful bits of mechanics, makes me wonder how future generations will perceive our messes of wires and cords. Maybe my great-great-grandchildren will, like J.K. Rowling's Arthur Weasley, take to collecting plugs. I found the last third or so of Petroski's book less interesting than the first two-thirds. Once the bookshelf assumed more or less its modern form, it was just a matter of optimizing space and usability in libraries, and I don't have the engineer's soul to enjoy such conversations as much as some people. Nevertheless, the book as a whole was highly enjoyable - the kind of thing from which I tend to read out tidbits as I find them to whomever is around to listen (usually David, who is a good sport). It was a great way to kick off the Dewey Decimal Challenge (000 century), and I'm looking forward to picking out an equally thought-provoking choice for next month.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jaci

    I actually learned a lot about shelving, esp. about the desk area, filling up to the top, and THEN filling the shelves under the desk. Interesting. Which makes me think I've found my calling. p.4: "Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior." p.22: "Is an empty bookshelf an oxymoron?" p.24: "It is extraordinary that so simple a device as the separation of words should never have become general until after the invention of printing." p.69: "Windows and natural light were als I actually learned a lot about shelving, esp. about the desk area, filling up to the top, and THEN filling the shelves under the desk. Interesting. Which makes me think I've found my calling. p.4: "Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior." p.22: "Is an empty bookshelf an oxymoron?" p.24: "It is extraordinary that so simple a device as the separation of words should never have become general until after the invention of printing." p.69: "Windows and natural light were also important because of the fear of fire, and many old libraries were open only as long as the sun was up..." p. 120: "The decorated fore edges of...books were also lettered over with literary identifiers, further suggesting the the purpose in part was to identify individual books in this large library..." 167: "In the nineteenth century the idea arose of keeping a library's collection of books in a space separate from the reading room, and this led to the development of the bookstack as we know it today." p.217: "Bern Dibner, the electrical engineer, inventor, and premier twentieth-century collector of books in the history of science and technology, kept his treasures in wooden bookcases with glass doors in the offices of his Burndy Engineering Company. Since the Burndy factory, which manufactured electrical connectors, was fitted with a water-sprinkler system, the rare books were in danger of being soaked if the system was ever triggered. To protect his collection in this event, Dibner had the bookcases fitted with metal canopies to shed the water as a pitched roof does." If you've read this far, I'd like you to know that I worked on the short-title catalog for the Dibner Collection at the Smithsonian in 1977-78.

  4. 5 out of 5

    S.

    competent rather than stunning, inclusive rather than unified, -- and written, most probably, under the simple rubric, 'a book about books has to get some readers, engineer Henry Petroski can write, but doesn't stun or immediately derive a rabid following. much of the book is concerned with bookshelf designs, and while three or four pictures of medieval bookshelf concepts (a rotary concept, an angled lectern) are fine, by the thirteenth or fourteenth, you're wondering of the writer needed to pro competent rather than stunning, inclusive rather than unified, -- and written, most probably, under the simple rubric, 'a book about books has to get some readers, engineer Henry Petroski can write, but doesn't stun or immediately derive a rabid following. much of the book is concerned with bookshelf designs, and while three or four pictures of medieval bookshelf concepts (a rotary concept, an angled lectern) are fine, by the thirteenth or fourteenth, you're wondering of the writer needed to produce filler. Petroski missed the opportunity to track a book from production to finish (he could have covered papermaking, ink production, tree farming) and he could have researched unusual or extreme short production books (Evelyn Waugh did a leather edition of 200 for his close friends of Brideshead Revisited; there was a medieval book with iron covers called Malleus Witchitorium or something like that, 'hammer of witches' which was designed both for reading and to be physically used to beat witches to death--I'm not making this up). if I know these two random facts about books, then Petroski's lack of deep research is clear since he probably could have come up with 100 totally unique books or publications with a little more willingness to talk to librarians or allied professionals. a competent, not-horrible 3.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    I'd like to give this half a star less, but that is unfortunately not possible, so in the spirit of being generous, I'll give it three stars. This book could easily have been shortened by 15-20% had the editor been a bit more liberal with his red pen in eliminating some of the more boring personal anecdotes along with the many paragraphs of repetitious overkill. For example, I am genuinely amazed by the sheer number of references and stories the author uses (ad nauseum) to demonstrate the tendenc I'd like to give this half a star less, but that is unfortunately not possible, so in the spirit of being generous, I'll give it three stars. This book could easily have been shortened by 15-20% had the editor been a bit more liberal with his red pen in eliminating some of the more boring personal anecdotes along with the many paragraphs of repetitious overkill. For example, I am genuinely amazed by the sheer number of references and stories the author uses (ad nauseum) to demonstrate the tendency to shelve books spine-in in the earlier centuries. (There, I just more or less summed up half the book in one sentence!) Unfortunately, it seems as though much of that heavy earlier history came at the expense of the more recent years, which was delivered towards the end in a couple of efficient and streamlined chapters. If only the earlier history could have been as efficient and succinct, it would make a nicer, quicker, and more interesting read. That said, though, it was still an interesting book as it stands, and I don't regret reading it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Gregsamsa

    While parts of this book were very slow going, it is worth it for the way it illustrates one of the most wonderful things about learning about history: what you think is the "right" way something is done is just as historical as the "weird" way people in past eras did things. It is just good for your head to have the banal things around you that you take for granted suddenly come alive as part of an historical process. It's so strange to think that the way we shelve DVDs has its roots in the day While parts of this book were very slow going, it is worth it for the way it illustrates one of the most wonderful things about learning about history: what you think is the "right" way something is done is just as historical as the "weird" way people in past eras did things. It is just good for your head to have the banal things around you that you take for granted suddenly come alive as part of an historical process. It's so strange to think that the way we shelve DVDs has its roots in the days when books were chained to lecturns. Who knew?

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bookishnymph *needs hea*

    A great and interesting read! I liked it so much, I think I'll check out his book The Pencil. A great and interesting read! I liked it so much, I think I'll check out his book The Pencil.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jedidja

    I really love it when people get excited about everyday things - and this author, who is a professor in both engineering and history, has written about the development of everyday objects like pencils and paperclips with more passion than most people have for life itself. This book was a tiny bit engineering-heavy for my layman self but the illustrations and descriptions are great, so if you're a book collector or library enthusiast you'll probably like it :) I really love it when people get excited about everyday things - and this author, who is a professor in both engineering and history, has written about the development of everyday objects like pencils and paperclips with more passion than most people have for life itself. This book was a tiny bit engineering-heavy for my layman self but the illustrations and descriptions are great, so if you're a book collector or library enthusiast you'll probably like it :)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mark Fallon

    The book for one who loves books, engineering and the history that brings them together.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Storey

    A bit dry in parts, but other parts were pretty fascinating...so it evens out into a 3 out of 5 stars. Some of my favorite quotes below: "The accumulation of books on shelves appears to be inevitable, and the search for ever more places to store books appears to be without limit. The house or apartment with too many books seems always to acquire even more." ~pg. 223 "When I travel, I find myself drawn into bookstores and to books I wonder if I will ever see again. Many of these volumes must be bou A bit dry in parts, but other parts were pretty fascinating...so it evens out into a 3 out of 5 stars. Some of my favorite quotes below: "The accumulation of books on shelves appears to be inevitable, and the search for ever more places to store books appears to be without limit. The house or apartment with too many books seems always to acquire even more." ~pg. 223 "When I travel, I find myself drawn into bookstores and to books I wonder if I will ever see again. Many of these volumes must be bought, of course, lest the opportunity to possess them be lost." ~pg. 230 "The booksehlf seems to abhor a vacuum, and so the void that is created when one book is removed is seldom adequate to receive the book again. Like a used air mattress or a roadmap, which can never seem to be folded back into the shape in which it came..." ~pg. 11 "And just as we may wonder if a tree makes a sound when it falls out of earshot, so we may ask, Is an empty bookshelf an oxymoron?" ~pg. 22 "According to its developers, the "ebook" could ultimately hold the entire Library of Congress, which is of the order of 20 million volumes...In time, the developers of this 21st century technology claim such books could also incorporate video clips to give us illuminated books that are also animated." ~pg. 166 (this book was written in 1999)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Phaelin

    As a teacher ,I would search for books that could help me teach rhyme, theme, vowel sounds or had exceptional illustrations. As a reader, I would look for crime or suspense genres. As a person who now works in a beautiful library, I am fascinated by books in general which is why I read this book. I thought it was going to be about book history, but no it was a book on book shelfs and how they came to be designed for a library and home. I almost closed it for good, but then the author starting writ As a teacher ,I would search for books that could help me teach rhyme, theme, vowel sounds or had exceptional illustrations. As a reader, I would look for crime or suspense genres. As a person who now works in a beautiful library, I am fascinated by books in general which is why I read this book. I thought it was going to be about book history, but no it was a book on book shelfs and how they came to be designed for a library and home. I almost closed it for good, but then the author starting writing about scrolls and codices and how in the second century they were stored in chest or cloisters or carrels. How the spines always faced the back of shelves and why. Why older libraries and universities were built the way they were. Did you know you can stand outside one of these buildings and tell where the book stacks are? I do now. The way a computer scrolls down was taken from the ancient scrolls . Maybe a duh for some of you, but for me it was " wow, I can see that!" Many fascinating facts and pictures about the evolvement of the book shelf and the library. The only reason I gave four stars was because the author rambled on a bit... like me! I guess it fascinated him also!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This short volume provides a detailed look at an object the lover of books usually takes for granted: the bookshelf. Since the history of the bookshelf is intertwined with the development of the book, that subject is also covered, starting with scrolls and codices and how they were stored and moving onto “chests, cloisters and carrels” and onto printing and the modern age. The architectural problems of storing books safely and accessibly in monasteries and libraries are also discussed. A delight This short volume provides a detailed look at an object the lover of books usually takes for granted: the bookshelf. Since the history of the bookshelf is intertwined with the development of the book, that subject is also covered, starting with scrolls and codices and how they were stored and moving onto “chests, cloisters and carrels” and onto printing and the modern age. The architectural problems of storing books safely and accessibly in monasteries and libraries are also discussed. A delightful appendix discusses the pros and cons of different ways “to arrange books on our bookshelves” from last name to title, size, color, sentimental value, order of publication, read or unread, and enjoyment (among others). The material is largely limited to Western Europe and the U.S. Well-written with great illustrations, and much, much (almost too much) information. “The bookcase without a full complement of books is like a day-dreaming student’s notebook, its lines half filled with substance and half with space”.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    It was clear throughout this attempted "history of the bookshelf" that Petroski was probably more interested in the history of book display than he was in shelves themselves. However, in focusing specifically on shelves, he limited the extent to which he could discuss other relevant sorts of display (books on coffee tables, books in stores, etc.) that may have provided interesting contrasts to some of the information he gave. Likewise, I wanted more information about the symbolic connotations of It was clear throughout this attempted "history of the bookshelf" that Petroski was probably more interested in the history of book display than he was in shelves themselves. However, in focusing specifically on shelves, he limited the extent to which he could discuss other relevant sorts of display (books on coffee tables, books in stores, etc.) that may have provided interesting contrasts to some of the information he gave. Likewise, I wanted more information about the symbolic connotations of housing books on bookshelves, and less of the engineering behind it. Granted, this is a personal preference. In any case, what was here was a straightforward history, which was easy to read and did provide some fun anecdotes (though it was less rich in archival information than I presumed it would be). I would recommend Alberto Manguel's book on libraries before this one, though they do accomplish different tasks (and treat slightly different subjects).

  14. 5 out of 5

    Angel

    This is a history of bookshelves, and how people have been organizing books since the time we had books as scrolls. His main argument is that the book shelf evolved as people needed better ways to store and arrange books; it came forth out of necessity. The idea is an intriguing one, and there is a lot that people who love reading about books will probably enjoy. I found the segments on medieval libraries and monasteries to be very interesting. However, the book lost steam for me about halfway d This is a history of bookshelves, and how people have been organizing books since the time we had books as scrolls. His main argument is that the book shelf evolved as people needed better ways to store and arrange books; it came forth out of necessity. The idea is an intriguing one, and there is a lot that people who love reading about books will probably enjoy. I found the segments on medieval libraries and monasteries to be very interesting. However, the book lost steam for me about halfway down the road. By the time I got to the chapter on moveable and compact shelving, I just wanted for the book to be done already. This last part was a bit on the tedious side. Librarians will likely find something to like in this book as well. I can say that at least this book was better than his other book on the pencil. That other book I dropped because it was pretty much unreadable. Overall, for people who enjoy reading books about books and reading, I would consider this an optional book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Traci

    Interesting, but it does get a bit dry and repetitive. Plus I had to remember that it was written 20 years ago...strange to come across someone wondering if "the e-book will succeed". It feels like Kindle and other formats have been around for a long time, then I realize that they weren't really being used when I first started in libraries, some 17 years ago. WOW! And that I've heard all the arguments about how e-books will replace print, that print will go the way of vinyl, etc. Well, print is Interesting, but it does get a bit dry and repetitive. Plus I had to remember that it was written 20 years ago...strange to come across someone wondering if "the e-book will succeed". It feels like Kindle and other formats have been around for a long time, then I realize that they weren't really being used when I first started in libraries, some 17 years ago. WOW! And that I've heard all the arguments about how e-books will replace print, that print will go the way of vinyl, etc. Well, print is very much alive and well, and vinyl is actually making a comeback. Just shows that folks want MORE, not one format or the other. This has made me think about my own shelving in my house. I'm pretty much a "by author" person, but not strictly alphabetical. Just all Stephen King books together, all Clive Barker books together, etc. And paperbacks are pretty much with other paperbacks. I guess I don't have much of a system after all!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lora

    Enjoyable book by an engineer about the history, nature, and design of both books and bookshelves. Many great lines, some painful passages about load bearing formulae of different kinds of shelves, and more. Cool illustrations throughout. The appendix was at least as enjoyable as the main text. The author combines poetic thoughts with engineering sciences! Well rounded! Parts were fun to read out loud. A good bibliophile book.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    A thorough look at the history of the bookshelf, books, the structure of libraries, and the book in our lives. I found this to be generally interesting, while not being as engaging as I would hope. I felt this was an interesting subject, but that the text here was a bit dry. I would still say to read the book if you are interested in the subject, as there are fascinating nuggets of information in the text.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Daahoud Asante

    Did you know that books used to be chained to shelves? and "worth its weight in gold" derives from the pay a scribe would earn for copying a book?....yeah, if your a bibliophile your gonna like this book about books, super interesting read that i would highly recommend, a little academic but not dry. Did you know that books used to be chained to shelves? and "worth its weight in gold" derives from the pay a scribe would earn for copying a book?....yeah, if your a bibliophile your gonna like this book about books, super interesting read that i would highly recommend, a little academic but not dry.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mgb

    I love books. I love bookshelves. I love the subject of this book. It is well written. It is just a little too much detail for me as I am not an engineer. But, isn’t it fascinating that most of us have never thought about whether books were always put vertically on bookshelves....or even spine outward?

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tori Samar

    This read too much like a textbook at times for my taste. Nevertheless, the true bibliophile is likely to gather some interesting nuggets of history from this book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael Ritchie

    Mostly interesting, but sags a little in the middle like an overstuffed bookshelf. Some really cool, nerdy tidbits to be had here, though.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    This is a book written by an engineer that asks a question that few people would think to ask: what is the history of the storage and presentation of books? How is it that we came to have the sort of bookshelves that we do in our homes and libraries? What is the history of a technology that we take for granted? Petroski is an author on the history of technology and is well-equipped to provide a thoughtful history about bookshelves and how books were stored beforehand. The audience to this book i This is a book written by an engineer that asks a question that few people would think to ask: what is the history of the storage and presentation of books? How is it that we came to have the sort of bookshelves that we do in our homes and libraries? What is the history of a technology that we take for granted? Petroski is an author on the history of technology and is well-equipped to provide a thoughtful history about bookshelves and how books were stored beforehand. The audience to this book is pretty straightforward, and if you can answer the following questions affirmatively, you are likely to enjoy this book: Do you like reading books about books [1]? Are you interested in forgotten technologies [2]? Do you like focusing on the infrastructure that others take for granted [3]? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, this is definitely a worthwhile book for you to read, and at around 250 pages including an entertaining appendix, this is a book that should not prove too taxing even if it is is somewhat old-fashioned in many ways. The book itself looks at the history of the bookshelf in tandem with a variety of other concerns that were related to books themselves as well as the larger concerns of architecture and engineering. From time immemorial book-lovers have found that the number of books in their collections multiplied far faster than their space. This is not a problem of myself alone, or a new problem by any rates, but goes back to ancient history. The author, by investigating old woodcuts and all of the books he could find that described and discussed the storage of books throughout history, has done excellent work in presenting a picture of the past when books were chained to the shelves or to the desks that they were on, when most books were stored in chests or boxes, when books were stored with their pages out. Of particular interest is the fact that increasing the number of shelves on top of each other made for difficult solutions in managing the safety of bookshelves from sag and deflection as well as damage during earthquakes. Also of interest is the difficulty of light, including the widespread divorce of bookshelves from sensible patterns of organization in order to take advantage of natural light. All in all, this is a book that encourages book-lovers to think about the nature of how their books are to be stored, displayed, and appreciated, and to no longer take the humble bookshelf for granted. Why do we take technology for granted? Few people within my circle of friends and acquaintances have more reason to celebrate the bookshelf than I do, given my massive collection of books in my library and given my appreciation of the engineering problems in managing the heavy dead and live loads of the bookshelves and books from a structural engineering perspective. The problem of storing books involves several problems of considerable personal interest--how do we maximize the storage space of books, allow those books to be easily accessible, preserve the enjoyment of reading those books using natural light where possible in a way that preserves books from unnecessary harm (aside from the harm that comes from reading them), and that is structurally safe and if possible aesthetically pleasing as well. These are a lot of simultaneous concerns to deal with, and the technologies we have used over time have all sought to address these various concerns based on the technology of the day. Even the ebook and book on tape or cd cannot hope to rid ourselves of our dependence on physical copies of books given the vulnerability of media to decay and the problem of storage. As Solomon said wisely so long ago, of books there is no end, and we can be glad for that as long as they are like this book, worth reading and reflecting on. [1] See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... [2] See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... [3] See, for example: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress... https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    I love to read books about books... or in this case, about bookshelves. Not the most fascinating of books, but I found many things very interesting to read about especially the evolution of books and libraries in monasteries. Petroski's prose I found to my liking, which of course helps tremendously in staying engaged in such an esoteric subject. This book is more of a technological history of the book and the bookshelf rather than the content and form of books themselves (so there is no discussi I love to read books about books... or in this case, about bookshelves. Not the most fascinating of books, but I found many things very interesting to read about especially the evolution of books and libraries in monasteries. Petroski's prose I found to my liking, which of course helps tremendously in staying engaged in such an esoteric subject. This book is more of a technological history of the book and the bookshelf rather than the content and form of books themselves (so there is no discussion in how poetry or the novel came about). This author apparently has a background in engineering because many parts of the book delve into minute details about the structure of bookcases, buildings, and whatever hybrid of furniture that came to be associated with storing and reading books. Those parts were tedious to read. But I now have an appreciation for why books are shelved and stacked they way they are now (with spine facing out) and how libraries and bookstores historically arranged their bookcases to maximize sunlight. So this book is for those of you who enjoy esoteric subjects and perhaps enjoy knowing about books to a pathological level.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Let me start out by saying the obvious. This book is almost as dry as it sounds. Still, Petroski manages to inject some surprisingly interesting information into a book about bookshelves (and a bit about bookbinding). There is no doubt that Petroski is knowledgeable and well-researched. At the same time, he definitely approaches this subject as a bibliophile rather than a librarian. Since I read this in a class for my library science degree, I found this seemingly innocuous fault rather annoying Let me start out by saying the obvious. This book is almost as dry as it sounds. Still, Petroski manages to inject some surprisingly interesting information into a book about bookshelves (and a bit about bookbinding). There is no doubt that Petroski is knowledgeable and well-researched. At the same time, he definitely approaches this subject as a bibliophile rather than a librarian. Since I read this in a class for my library science degree, I found this seemingly innocuous fault rather annoying at times. Petroski references some of the decisions made by libraries/librarians in a way that does not reflect accurately about the field (past or present). For the most part, though, this is an unexpected and surprisingly interesting dive into the reasons we shelve books the way we do. Petroski's use of images and a largely chronological order do help the reader keep up with the development of the bookshelf. Who know such a subject could bring up so many social and historical factoids?

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    A relatively fascinating history of bookshelves, with a clever title. The introduction shows a clear need for an editor with a little less fear of cutting words; the later chapters go a little crazy, as Petroski tells us of a future where eBooks clog the internet, forcing us to cherish those few books that have survived the coming of CDs, and then, just a few pages later, tells us about how awful libraries have become, strictly for having added plastic liners to trash cans. But in between the in A relatively fascinating history of bookshelves, with a clever title. The introduction shows a clear need for an editor with a little less fear of cutting words; the later chapters go a little crazy, as Petroski tells us of a future where eBooks clog the internet, forcing us to cherish those few books that have survived the coming of CDs, and then, just a few pages later, tells us about how awful libraries have become, strictly for having added plastic liners to trash cans. But in between the introduction and the ending is a really solid look at the history of books and of course, bookshelves.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sue Dounim

    I personally found this more interesting than perhaps many readers since I have been trying to figure out the best way to shelve and catalog my books all my life. I never had a huge collection -- perhaps 5000 at tops -- but I also never had a huge house to put them in. I always wondered how old books were stored and shelved and this scratched my itch about that. In terms of cataloging: I tried so many methods, starting with a plain text file to trying to write a "Hypercard Stack" if any of you r I personally found this more interesting than perhaps many readers since I have been trying to figure out the best way to shelve and catalog my books all my life. I never had a huge collection -- perhaps 5000 at tops -- but I also never had a huge house to put them in. I always wondered how old books were stored and shelved and this scratched my itch about that. In terms of cataloging: I tried so many methods, starting with a plain text file to trying to write a "Hypercard Stack" if any of you remember that...finally settled on BookCat which works well for me, plus it allows me to keep records of my sold and discarded volumes, and notes about books I borrowed.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I came across this book fittingly enough as I was adding shelves to my basement library. Petroski brings an engineer's mind to this brief history of books, the shelves which hold the books, and the libraries which hold the shelves. He makes the trip from scrolls tucked into monastery cells to massive structures which would collapse without the stacks in a way which doesn't go so deeply into the engineering that it becomes a slog to anyone not a structural engineer. Definitely worth the read for I came across this book fittingly enough as I was adding shelves to my basement library. Petroski brings an engineer's mind to this brief history of books, the shelves which hold the books, and the libraries which hold the shelves. He makes the trip from scrolls tucked into monastery cells to massive structures which would collapse without the stacks in a way which doesn't go so deeply into the engineering that it becomes a slog to anyone not a structural engineer. Definitely worth the read for anyone who's looking to stuff just one more book onto a packed shelf.

  28. 5 out of 5

    B.

    The book had far too many personal anecdotes, to such a degree that it ultimately works to detract from the basic premise of the book, the history of the bookshelves. That being said, there were several beautiful turns of phrase, and while I wasn't able to get a great deal of new information from the book, I am glad that I read it. It could have been far more succinct and comprehensive if it was about 30% shorter with the removal of personal babble and a focus on the actual subject. The book had far too many personal anecdotes, to such a degree that it ultimately works to detract from the basic premise of the book, the history of the bookshelves. That being said, there were several beautiful turns of phrase, and while I wasn't able to get a great deal of new information from the book, I am glad that I read it. It could have been far more succinct and comprehensive if it was about 30% shorter with the removal of personal babble and a focus on the actual subject.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Anson Cassel Mills

    Although this volume contains much fascinating information about the evolution of the book, the author is most interested in how book storage systems have developed. It turns out that books have been stored in more peculiar ways than an uninitiated reader might imagine. (Would you believe most books were once shelved “backwards” with their fore-edge out and their title-less spine faced in?) Among Petroski’s best chapters are the one that treats problems arising when books had to be chained to th Although this volume contains much fascinating information about the evolution of the book, the author is most interested in how book storage systems have developed. It turns out that books have been stored in more peculiar ways than an uninitiated reader might imagine. (Would you believe most books were once shelved “backwards” with their fore-edge out and their title-less spine faced in?) Among Petroski’s best chapters are the one that treats problems arising when books had to be chained to their shelves and the one describing the development of modern library shelving so strong that it could support the library rather than the other way around. Petroski includes many fine illustrations that that entertainingly support his theses and educated guesses. Committed bibliophiles may easily tolerate the discursive, not to say meandering, course of The Book on the Bookshelf. I reached the limit of my patience a couple of times and put the book back on the bookshelf for a while before finally finishing it. That having been said, Petroski's ramble is too self-indulgent and just plain too long, sort of an Atlantic Monthly essay gotten out of hand. I absolve future readers from all guilt if they decide to skip pages and even whole sections of this clever work.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    A book about ... bookshelves? Really? As an engineer and bibliophile who has enjoyed some of the author’s books, I had high hopes, which were shattered as I went through each chapter. Quicker and more superficially as I went along. Tedious discussion of a mundane and rather esoteric topic.

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