Book Review: The Book On The Book Shelf

The Book On The Book Shelf, by Henry Petroski

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:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Book On The Book Shelf

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Unpacking My Library | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: To Engineer Is Human | Edge Induced Cohesion

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