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The Book on the Bookshelf
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The Book on the Bookshelf

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  1,310 ratings  ·  126 reviews
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 aston
ebook, 304 pages
Published December 1st 2010 by Vintage (first published September 14th 1999)
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Average rating 3.77  · 
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 ·  1,310 ratings  ·  126 reviews

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Jan 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Jan 13, 2009 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 West, entert ...more
Apr 20, 2011 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 natu
Aug 08, 2013 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 produce ...more
Feb 14, 2012 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
Jul 24, 2013 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 days when boo ...more
Bookishnymph *needs hea*
A great and interesting read! I liked it so much, I think I'll check out his book The Pencil.
Mark Fallon
The book for one who loves books, engineering and the history that brings them together.
Mar 14, 2013 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 s
Mar 06, 2015 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
Dec 12, 2010 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
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
May 06, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Dec 21, 2011 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 t
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.
Daahoud Asante
Jun 25, 2015 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.
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.
Nathan Albright
Sep 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: challenge
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 ...more
Aug 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 05, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, books-i-own
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 ...more
Dec 14, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
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.
Feb 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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?
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 ...more
May 05, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Assiduously researched, but a struggle to read. Some fascinating historic info about books and libraries but bogs down with alarming frequency.
Donna Sinclair
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Michael Ritchie
Nov 19, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mostly interesting, but sags a little in the middle like an overstuffed bookshelf. Some really cool, nerdy tidbits to be had here, though.
Carey Platt
A fun book about the history of storing books. Along the way discussing libraries and book stores.
Mar 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book that turned out to be much more interesting than I anticipated. The author traces the history of the book and the bookshelf (and by extension, libraries) over the course of time. From scrolls to papyrus to printing presses to e-books. Did you know that books in the medieval period were connected by chains to reading carrels? Or that books were shelved with their spines facing inwards for hundreds of years? The author also covers the evolution of some of the world's most famous libraries a ...more
May 25, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Informative and eclectic, but also somewhat trivial - full of fascinating bibliophilic tidbits but also of personal anecdotes that illuminate almost nothing.
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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,
“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.” 3 likes
“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.” 1 likes
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