The Book on the Bookshelf

Henry Petroski

Possibly you’ve read something by Henry Petroski before, as he is quite prolific: writing about the pencil, useful things in general, as well as more abstract concepts like Success through Failure.

In this book he begins staring at his bookshelves and wondering how much he really sees them or just the books on them, or some combination of the two entities in which they are fully dependent on each other being there to be seen at all. It segues into a history of bookshelves through the book itself, but not just the progression from scroll to codex, but also how books were used and stored and organized. From the earliest scribed volumes to later printed volumes, Petroski pairs his scholarly research with personal anecdotes where he can. There are many quotes from Melvil Dewey with his admirable dedication to spelling reform fully intact.

Petroski certainly doesn’t let go of an idea once it gets a hold of him, and it’s impressive how much information he’s found and collected in a digestible format. There are a few times he gets a little extra-obsessive about some aspect of his story, like when he documents the progression of how books came to sit on their bottoms with the spines out, all through Medieval woodcuts. Or giving in-depth descriptions of libraries from the past, countered with his experiences with the various libraries he’s used as a scholar. But as this book could appeal to readers and librarians and engineers and assorted historians, chances are he’s found some little-known fact or philosophy related to books and the shelves that keep them handy that you haven’t yet heard or considered.

Includes an appendix that attempts to collect every possible means of organizing books on shelves. I’ve already tried the color method.