Review by Neville Thompson
The Book on the Bookshelf

Henry Petroski. The Book on the Bookshelf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. x + 290 pp.; numerous bw illus., appendix, bibliography, index. $26.00.

Henry Petroski has done it again. The bard of the overlooked, the ordinary, and the taken-for-granted objects in our daily lives, Petroski has turned his attention to something almost all of us encounter on a daily basis and probably never notice: the bookshelves that we perceive, if at all, in a (literally) supporting role. But as the author says, he “looked up one evening and saw bookshelves in a different light,” to our benefit.

A professor of civil engineering and of history at Duke University, Petroski has made a specialty of chronicling, in the words of the title of one of his earlier books, “the evolution of useful things,” such as the pencil and the safety pin. “How often,” he asks, “do we really see what we look at, day in and day out?” It’s a fair question, and Petroski’s gift is to make us see, not only the thing itself, but also its connections to the greater world of technology and of culture in which such an object is embedded.

I must confess at this point that as a librarian (and a pack-rat accumulator of books) I probably ponder bookshelves more often than some of Petroski’s readers, but this tends to be on an immediate and problem-solving level. What his book does is much grander. After all, as he points out, the “stories of the evolution of the book and the bookshelf are inseparable, and both are examples of the evolution of technology.” And, I must add, for readers of this journal, the story of the bookshelf is an example of the evolution of a furniture form often taken for granted.

The first “books” were scrolls (volumeria). They were stored, rolled up, in shelving most closely resembling the pigeonholes of a small-town post office, complete with identifying tags affixed to one end. By the Early Christian Era, however, alternate forms of recorded writing had evolved: the hand-held wax tablet (infinitely erasable) and the codex, a form of bound manuscript using papyrus as its base. The need to house both bound and rolled materials led to the development of a closed cabinet called the armarium (from whence came armoire), also called later, in France, the presse.

Medieval book-holdings were few and precious. Generally, monasteries were the sites with significant collections, which by our standards were scanty indeed: this explains the use, for some centuries, of locked—at times, triple-locked—low chests purpose-built for book storage. A very few of these chests survive and are illustrated here. (They also appear in the surprisingly numerous manuscript views of scholars in their studies, and in these, at times, seem to be set on frames.) Monasteries also gave rise to standing desks—lecterns positioned to allow the reader maximum use of natural light—and to the ancestors of today’s carrels, originally partitioned-off sections of the garden side of cloister walkways. Over the years, the chests that held the few books a monastery or wealthy owner might hold were turned on the ends, provided with shelves, and united with lecterns. With these shelves positioned at right angles to tall windows, the library as we know it assumed its modern form, so characteristic that a library building can often be spotted at a distance simply by the arrangement of its windows or lack of them.

Along the way, Petroski delights his readers with the unexpected: the development and disappearance of the “chained” book (which any truthful librarian will admit to wishing for on occasion); the “spectator sport” of examining someone else’s bookshelves; the early custom of shelving books fore-edge out, with titles written on the page ends. The ubiquitous Samuel Pepys turns out to have been a leader in the spine-outwards movement, having designed his own bookshelves and commissioned matching bindings for his very extensive library.

Petroski even touches on the disappearance of the book, in more ways than one: some books have been destroyed deliberately by their owners (the reader who tore out each page as he finished reading it being an extreme example). The advent of the e-book (“the last book”) may or may not signal disappearance of another sort altogether. Petroski does not pass judgment here: the evolution of technology, we feel, will always interest him, wherever it may lead. In the meantime, he raises the readers’ spirits with a delightful appendix on the many ways we can choose to arrange books on our own shelves, ranging from the common (by author) to the unexpected (by enjoyment, by color, by sentimental value).

The Book on the Bookshelf is not only entertaining and illuminating; it can cause the reader to look around with new eyes and a heightened appreciation of all those things we never notice but can’t do without. I recommend this book—and his others as well—to those of us who take our surroundings for granted. These overlooked and neglected objects are fortunate indeed to have Henry Petroski as their historian.

Neville Thompson
Winterthur Museum

American Furniture 2000