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The Book on the Bookshelf

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  1,190 Ratings  ·  121 Reviews
"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
Paperback, 292 pages
Published 1999 by Knopf
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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 We ...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 natural light were als
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 pro ...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 the tendenc
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 day ...more
Reading Faerie
A great and interesting read! I liked it so much, I think I'll check out his book The Pencil.
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 starting writ
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
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 these volumes must be bou
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
Nov 05, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-own, history
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
Feb 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Perhaps this might be more than you want to know about books and bookshelves unless you are a true bibliophile or a librarian and since I am both, there were many things about Petroski's narrative that were either fascinating or maddening. The first impression I got from reading his book is: where does anyone come up with these questions to begin a research study like this? Sometimes he was persnickety; sometimes he was simply "out there"; and then he would swoop into something undeniably brilli ...more
Donna Sinclair
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Interesting but somewhat long-winded read. Could have done with less examples.
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.
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 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.
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.
Oct 10, 2012 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
Sep 27, 2012 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
Feb 26, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I won't look at my library the same way again.
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
Joanne J
Mar 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Book on the Bookshelf is really an engineer’s perspective on how the bookshelf developed from ancient times to modern and how private and public libraries used different techniques to make room for their ever-growing libraries in unique ways over time leading up to what we see in libraries today. Two major factors when designing bookshelves and their placement were how to maximize light (when daylight was the only available light) and space (so librarians and patrons had adequate space to wo ...more
I love the idea of this book, but it's horribly boring to read and I wish the editor had cut Petroski's chatter down to more efficient/readable sentences and paragraphs. The writing is painfully verbose and I had to fight to read each sentence rather than skim. Didn't make it more than 18 pages in before I had to drop it.
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
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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
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“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
More quotes…