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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 astonishing evolution from papyrus scrolls boxed at Alexandria to upright books shelved at the Library of Congress. Unimpeachably researched, enviably written, and charmed with anecdotes from Seneca to Samuel Pepys to a nineteenth-century bibliophile who had to climb over his books to get into bed, The Book on the Bookshelf is indispensable for anyone who loves books.
That bookshelves might harbor secret and enchanting lives is a thrilling prospect for any serious reader. What laws of human nature govern our sturdy cases of books? What damning quirks of character glare from a few casually stowed volumes? In this disappointing study, however, Petroski's effort to reveal the "evolution of the bookshelf as we know it" yields few rewards. Pondering the physics of the bookend and the genealogy of the library carrel, this Duke University scholar observes the bookshelf as a piece of the infrastructure undergirding our civilization. We learn that medieval books were chained to their shelves to prevent theft, and that beverage stains have plagued bibliophiles almost since the dawn of the printed word. Admirers of Petroski's earlier works (The Evolution of Useful Things, Remaking the World, etc.) will not be surprised by his exquisite research, or by the gusto with which he plunges into the dustiest of library bins. But the bookshelf proves a more oblique topic than bridges or even pencils, two of Petroski's other interests. The practical construction principles of bookshelves make for rather dull reading, and conjecture about lectern usage in the Middle Ages wears thin. This book is most successful when delving into the gritty aspects of engineering, whether it be the cantilevered forces of library book stacks or the architecture of the British Museum Reading Room. After lingering among such fusty stacks, readers will welcome the whimsical appendix, which proposes arranging one's books alphabetically by the author's first name, or even by the first word of the antepenultimate sentence.