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The Book on the Bookshelf

3.72  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,002 Ratings  ·  104 Reviews
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 pr ...more
Paperback, 292 pages
Published 1999 by Knopf
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Jan 20, 2009 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2009
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 ...more
Jul 30, 2013 Gregsamsa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Aug 08, 2013 S. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Feb 14, 2012 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 31, 2016 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 ...more
Apr 25, 2016 Ints rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Domāju, ka pastāv varbūtība, ka šī nu ir grāmata, kuru Latvijā diez vai kāds bez manis ir lasījis. Nez vai mums ir daudz tādu cilvēku, kurus interesē grāmatu plauktu dizaina attīstības vēsture. Protams, es nevaru izslēgt iespēju, ka slepenajās bibliotekāru brālībās (pareizāk gan, manuprāt, būtu teikt māsībās) šī grāmata ir obligātās literatūras sarakstā, bet mums parastajiem mirstīgajiem, domājams, nekad nebūs lemts izzināt patiesību šajā jautājumā. Zinātāji to droši vien neafišē, lai nākamajā b ...more
Feb 16, 2012 Storey rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit dry in parts, but other parts were pretty 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
Jul 03, 2013 Phaelin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 25, 2011 Jaci rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 ...more
Dec 16, 2010 Elizabeth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
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 ...more
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.
Charles Eliot
When I read fiction, I try to synch myself to the pace and flow of the writing. Some fiction needs to read fast, and some fiction needs to be savored.

But when I read non-fiction I usually end up tuning my reading apparatus to ignore noise and extract signal. The best writers of non-fiction can be wonderful stylists - Dava Sobel, Atul Gawande, Mary Roach, to name just a few. But most non-fiction isn't to be read for the undying quality of the prose. Steven Jay Gould and Henry Petroski both write
Daahoud Asante
Jun 25, 2015 Daahoud Asante rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 05, 2014 mpacer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can encourage others to read this book if they are interested in the history of the written word and how the physical nature of things changes the way they are used and modified. However, though I didn't put it down I was not enthralled. Rather, I found it to be an interesting topic and could have done with better editing, and a better analysis of what the underlying problems that all bookshelves were aiming to solve.

In general it lacked a larger theme beyond 'hey, this is a book about booksh
Apr 03, 2015 Dann rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
"It is a spectator sport to look at someone else’s books, if not an act of voyeurism or armchair psychology."

If that's so, then what could be more interesting than looking at history's bookshelf? Petroski sets out to show us how the book and the bookshelf (as well as the bookstore and the library) have developed over the centuries. It's an interesting look back at how culture, architecture, and design have influenced each other throughout human history.

While Petroski does a great job of making t
Tracey Allen at Carpe Librum
This non-fiction book is a treat for bibliophiles but could prove a bit of a bore for the average reader. In The Book on the Bookshelf, author Henry Petroski takes an in depth look at the development of books and the humble bookshelf over the centuries including: scrolls and codices, illuminated texts and the modern paperback.

I enjoyed tracing the history of book storage across history, and particularly enjoyed learning more about the practice of chaining precious books to desks in libraries and
Gary Lang
In The “Book on the Bookshelf”, Petroski does what he has once done for the pencil, and focuses on the lifetime of one designed object – here the book shelf – to illustrate how learning, print, information sharing, information security policy, and library science have evolved. The book runs from the time before there were books, when scrolls were the way we captured our culture and made it available for others to read in the present and the future. It ends in the 1999 – the year the Petroski boo ...more
This was a book that at times was fascinating to read and at times was a slog to get through. Petroski went into such finite detail on every aspect of books and bookshelves that there is no way he could get by without repeating himself and boring his reader on occasion.

Having said that, I will say that I learned a lot from this book and did enjoy reading it. One of the most fascinating details was that books used to be chained (up until the 16th century) to the bookshelf so they wouldn't be sto
Nov 11, 2007 Kara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: librariana
This book started out strong, a much better read than Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History (which I found deeply disappointing). In fact, in some ways, this, too, is a history of libraries, or more properly, library facilities, told from the point of view of the book and the bookshelf. My favorite bits were the deep analysis of old engravings and illustrations to reveal people's shelving practices.

Unfortunately, the book is organized sort of strangely. The chapters are organized around
Jul 01, 2015 dejah_thoris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This book is a treat for any bibliophile interested in learning how books and bookshelves and library arrangements came to be. Petroski does an excellent job of delineating the past and for those who like to skim, reading the illustration captions will give you a good sense of the material. The only fault I can find in this book is when Petroski tries to predict the future of the ebook and libraries in the digital age. (See quotes for Petroski, Henry. I didn't realize when contributing the excer ...more
Oct 13, 2009 Ginnie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you appreciate incredibly detailed accounts of how items, such as modern books and bookshelves came to be, Henry Petroski's your author!

This fascinating (although at times painfully slow) book explains the changes of reading material into bound books as we know them as well as how the shelves they are stored on in libraries evolved over time and use. After reading this book, I haven't looked at a library in the same old (for granted) way.

In the last section of the book he discusses the variou
Jun 02, 2014 Michelle rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The best single-subject books take a character (often the author himself) and use that person as a conduit to explore everything about that subject. Victoria Findlay did this in Color, and the result was an engaging travelogue that taught me everything I could ever want to know about color. I expected this to be a similarly fun read, but it turns out Petroski is not a very good writer. His language is fine, but he's missing the gift of the storyteller. This is just a bunch of sentences strung to ...more
Nov 03, 2011 trav rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Petroski fascinates me. How can one man spend so much energy and concentration on so many singular topics.

This book focuses on the history of the bookshelf and bookcase. Who knew that for years all books were designed to lay flat on their backs and not standing up? Eventually someone said "hey there's a more effecient way..."

Petroski's research is amazing. This book contains tons of etches, sketches, patents, etc. of all kinds of things bookshelf related.

Though at times I found myself bored with
Sep 15, 2012 Kamal rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Petroski's training as an engineer makes him a good guide to the structural advances of book storage devices over the past two millennia. As a book lover and avid reader, I was surprised to learn about chained books and the idea that people had to learn how to store books, a fact that seems self-evident to us today. This is a history of reading unlike so many others in that it focuses (as the title suggests) on books at rest, not books in use. This approach at first seems novel, but soon it beco ...more
Jul 06, 2011 Trauman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
[via @trauman] The first half of this book focuses on the co-evolution of the physical/material form of the book (from tablet to scroll to codex) and the way Western culture has fostered access to this form. They evolve in tandem. Really informative. Very clearly written. Should be great resource for my dissertation: shows how objects must evolve in conversation/tandem with their cultural/material contexts. Really expands the notion of what sorts of things might be considered "book technologies. ...more
Aug 15, 2009 Tiffany rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: bibliophiles!
From the introduction to the Bibliography:
"This book began with a question: From where did the bookshelf and bookcase come? The question soon turned into a hypothesis: The bookcase evolved, as I believe all artifacts do, in response to real and perceived problems with existing technology. In the case of the bookshelf, this meant shortcomings in the way in which books were stored."

The book touches on the question of art vs. function of bookshelves, the evolution of bookbinding, bookcases and book
Phil Dwyer
Full of interesting detail on the evolution of the book and the parallel development of ways of safely storing them. But dull. Very dull. In the hands of a playful, humourous writer it could have been a thoroughly entertaining read, but to be honest it was a slog.
Jun 25, 2015 Dixie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
May 2015 Book Group read. Didn't attend Book group that fell on same date as Walking Group, I needed to be outside ! Book is interesting in the history of shelving and how books were originally displayed & kept vs. today but I'm bogged down in all the details of specific libraries, etc. May not finish since I don't have discussion to attend or maybe I'll skim thru the rest..... I didn't finish it, but again it was interesting on how books changed from scrolls to sheets to bound books and how ...more
Dec 09, 2011 Kyrie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
It was interesting to learn how books were shelved. Seriously. Petroski made it interesting. I learned a lot about books, bookshelves, libraries, windows and shelving systems. I read a chapter a day, which probably helped maintain my interest. I love books, but yes, there is a limit on how much a bibliophile can take on medieval book arranging.
The appendix is as interesting as the books - I never heard of so many ways to organize one books. There were the logical ones - by author, by subject an
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Henry Petroski is a civil engineering professor at Duke University where he specializes in failure analysis.

Petroski was born in Brooklyn, New York, and in 1963, he received his bachelor's degree from Manhattan College. He graduated with his Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1968. Before beginning his work at Duke in 1980, he worked a
More about Henry Petroski...

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“Yet the bookshelf us also conspicuous in its absence. When we enter a living room without books or bookshelves, we wonder if the people in the house do nothing but watch television.” 0 likes
“Yet the bookshelf is also conspicuous in its absence. When we enter a living room without books or bookshelves, we wonder if the people in the house do nothing but watch television.” 0 likes
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