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The Book on the Bookshelfby Henry Petroski
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"For anyone interested in the craft of reading, [this book] is a compulsive necessity." The New York Times Book Review
"A fascinating history of two related common objects, impeccably documented and beautifully illustrated." Civilization
"After reading this book, you will not look at a book or a bookshelf in the same way." Seattle Times
"If 'God is in the details,' then those seeking God should read Petroski's books." Library Journal
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.
My reading chair faces my bookshelves, and I see them every time I look up from the page. When I say that I see them, I speak metaphorically, of course, for how often do we really see what we look at day in and day out? In the case of my bookshelves, in fact, I tend to see the books and not the shelves. If I think consciously about it and refocus my eyes — the way I must do when viewing optical illusions, to see the stairs go up instead of down or the cube recede in perspective to the right rather than to the left — I can see the shelves, but usually only their edges and maybe the bottoms of the upper shelves, and seldom the shelves complete and the shelves alone. Even when the bookshelves are bare, I tend to see not the shelves themselves but the absence of books, for the shelves are defined by their purpose.
If the truth be told, neither do I see the books without the shelves. The bottoms of the books rest squarely on the shelves, and the rows of books are aligned against gravity. The tops of these same books present a ragged line, of course, but even this is defined by the shelf on which they rest, and is emphasized by the straight edge of the shelf above. Books and bookshelves are a technological system, each component of which influences how we view the other. Since we interact with books and bookshelves, we too become part of the system. This alters our view of it and its components and influences our very interaction with it. Such is the nature of technology and its artifacts.
An attempt to gain perspective on the bookshelf is not a simple matter. The bookshelves in my study go from floor to ceiling and nearly cover one of its walls, but because my study is not grand, I cannot easily distance myself from the wall of shelves. Even when I first moved into this study, when it and the bookshelves were bare, I could not stand back far enough to view the shelves entire. No matter where I stand before this wall of shelves, I see the bottoms of some and the tops of others, the left side of some of the vertical supports and the right side of others. I never see all of a single shelf at a single time. I can, of course, take it for granted that all the shelves are identical and so infer that when I see the bottom of one shelf I see the bottom of all shelves, but there is something not wholly satisfying about such philosophizing, common as it is.
While reading in my chair late one evening I perceived, for whatever reason, the bookshelf beneath a row of books in a new light. I saw it as a piece of infrastructure, taken for granted if not neglected, like a bridge beneath a line of cars, and I wanted to know more about the nature and origins of this ubiquitous thing. But where to begin? Was it meaningful to ask why the bookshelf is horizontal and why books are placed vertically upon it? Or are these facts so obvious as to need no explanation? Going further, was there anything to be gained by asking why we shelve our books with their spines facing outward, or is this simply the only logical way to shelve them? Don't books go on bookshelves, as nuts go on bolts, only one way?
As it turns out, the story of the bookshelf is rooted in the story of the book, and vice versa. It may be strictly true that books can exist without bookshelves, and we can imagine the Library of Congress or even the local public library with books contained in boxes, stacked on the floor, or stored in piles like firewood or coal. The bookshelf, however, can hardly be imagined without the existence of books. That is not to say that without books we would not have shelves, but they would certainly not be bookshelves. The bookshelf, like the book, has become an integral part of civilization as we know it, its presence in a home practically defining what it means to be civilized, educated, and refined. Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior.
Authors often have their pictures taken in front of bookshelves, but why? Certainly they have not written all the books before which they stand. Perhaps they want to show us how many books they have read in order to write theirs, and that we will not have to read if we delve into their comprehensive essay or historical novel, with its extensive notes or wide-ranging bibliography, explicit or implicit. Since the book on which their photo appears is seldom, if ever, on the bookshelf behind them, perhaps these authors are sending the subliminal message that we should go to the bookstore and buy their book to complete the shelf.
But can a bookshelf ever be complete? There are well over fifty thousand books published every year in America alone. Can anyone read that many books even in a lifetime? The math is not hard to do. If we read roughly a book a day, we can read about one thousand books every three years. Assuming that we start when we are four years old and live to the ripe old age of ninety-four, we could then read about thirty thousand books in a lifetime. What would it take to shelve that many books? Assuming each book requires on average an inch of shelf length, we would need about 2,500 feet of shelving. It would take a house with six or seven large rooms fitted with bookshelves on every wall to hold that many books, which would make it not a home but a bookstore — or a small town's public library.
But if we walked into such a house, would we see books or bookshelves? Which in fact do we see when we walk into a library? In virtually all cases, the books are the focus of our attention. Like the steps beneath a group of people being photographed, the shelves go largely unseen; they are there but not there. They are the infrastructure. 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.
Ironically, the bookshelf is a familiar prop on television, being frequently part of the deep background for interviews on shows ranging from Today to Nightline. Congressmen and senators hold news conferences carried on C-SPAN before a bookcase that is no wider than the camera's frame. (Are the books in it real?) Whenever Newt Gingrich wore his bookshelf necktie on the set, he was faced and backed by books. Lawyers and professors are often interviewed in front of shelves of books, the producer apparently wanting to associate the experts with the authority of the library behind them.
A propped-up prop, the bookshelf plays a supporting role to the book. It is not only the backdrop but the stage itself upon which books line up for applause. And yet, important as its role has been in the history of civilization, the bookshelf seldom even gets mentioned in the program; it is treated as a supernumerary, taken for granted, and ignored. There is much anecdotal evidence that this is the case.
During a cocktail party, the wife of a colleague retreated to my study to nurse her newborn baby. When she emerged some time later with the sleeping child, she said she hoped I didn't mind that she had browsed through my bookshelves, but she was interested to find several books that she had fond memories of reading. It is, of course, unremarkable that she had nary a word to say about the shelves on which the books reside. But when another guest visited my study on a different occasion, his focus on the books to the exclusion of the shelves was notable.
On a pleasant spring afternoon, this guest browsed in my study while I looked for something to give him to read on the plane. His browsing soon became perusing, and he looked at the books on my bookshelves with an intensity of purpose that was not unfamiliar. It is a spectator sport to look at someone else's books, if not an act of voyeurism or armchair psychology. My guest seemed hardly to overlook a title on the shelves, and he remarked to me that he always found it interesting to see what people owned and read. Naturally, he would be interested: my guest was a psychologist, a specialist in cognitive science who has served as a consultant on computer-user interfaces, and who now advised a major office-equipment manufacturer about what products to develop and what features to design into them. He had written with insight on the design of everyday things, paying special attention to their use. As a reader of his books, I did not think he would miss a thing, no matter what he was looking at.
Earlier in the day I had shown him around town. We had stopped at a new public policy studies building which has been lauded for the attention its architect paid to how the structure and its space would be used. As soon as we entered, we could see that this was not a conventional building. Numerous offices and conference rooms open onto balcony-like hallways that overlook two sides of a common space which is only loosely bordered on its other two sides by tiers of open lounge areas, which also overlook and help define the atrium. It does not appear that a person can move from one part of the building to another without walking along a hall or stairway that is open to the common space, where chance encounters among those in the building are likely to be frequent, as no doubt planned. The arrangement reminded me of the National Humanities Center, where people enter and leave through the commons, which also serves as the dining area where visiting scholars writing books on everything from pencils to phenomenology gather to converse. My guest was immediately struck by the thoughtful design of the new building, noting subtle details that go unnoticed by most of us, like lighting fixtures over bulletin boards and the hardware on the doors, which he has written about with special insight and passion. Having begun to think about this book, I was hoping to see the bookshelves in the building's offices, but no offices were open on the Saturday afternoon that we visited.
Back in my study, we talked not about things or even about books as objects but about the ideas they contain and how different categories of books were grouped on my bookshelves. My guest found and commented on some familiar titles that he no doubt expected, like Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine and many books about bridges, but he expressed surprise at finding some others there. I explained that many of those having to do with the design of computer software had been sent or given to me by readers of my own books on the design of bridges and other useful things. Since I have argued that design is design, regardless of the object being designed, the collection of books represents to me a unity of theme, if not a downright obsession with a few ideas, but I admitted difficulty in deciding exactly where to shelve a given book that touches on more than one aspect of the theme. My guest surely formed an opinion about what I read and how I work in my study, but the conversation turned to computers and the features I should look for in a laptop, since I told him I was in the market for one.
If my guest formed an opinion about me through the books on my bookshelves, this confirmed one of my current hypotheses: that for all the attention even the most observant of us pays to useful things, we all but ignore the infrastructure upon which they rest. My guest made no comment about the bookshelves, even after I tried to steer the conversation in that direction. Even the fact that the topmost of the floor-to-ceiling shelves were out of his reach did not elicit a comment from him, this critic of everything from the design of telephone systems to the location of electric-light switches. "The dust and silence of the upper shelf," about which Lord Macaulay wrote, remained undisturbed in our conversation as well. Once in place and with books upon it, the bookshelf has no moving parts and no obvious function except to stay where it is and support a line of books. It is like a common bridge on a small country road, there but not there to all who use it every day. Yet let the bridge be washed out in a flood, and suddenly it becomes the most important topic of discussion in the county. So it is with technology generally: it is most present in its absence.
When I began working on this book, I saw bookshelves where I once saw books, but not everyone shared my perspective. At a dinner party one evening, in the home of a historian who built his own wall of bookcases sized just right to hold the many paperbacks that historians are wont to have, I commented on the bookshelves I had all but ignored on previous visits. The conversation eventually turned from the pride of workmanship in making such things to the more general topic of books and their arrangement on the shelves. Since I was full of thoughts of how books were shelved in medieval times and the evolution of the bookshelf as we know it, I tried to steer the after-dinner talk back to bookshelves. I was interested to learn that their origins are not widely known even among historians, especially those whose period is not the Middle Ages. Talking to a retired English professor some months later, I found again that the physical nature of medieval books and the fact that they were chained to the bookshelf is not common knowledge among students of books whose specialties lie in later centuries.
It was not only from scholars but also from librarians that I discovered that neither the history of books and their care nor the design and development of the furniture in which they are stored and displayed are widely known. The title alone of an early book that I consulted, The Chained Library, by Burnett Hillman Streeter, aroused curiosity among librarians and library clerks alike when I requested it. The book, published in 1931, seems to have been regularly if infrequently checked out for the first decade it was in the library, but the last due date stamped on the slip in the back of the book is oct 28 41. Judging from the signatures on the charge card, still in its pocket on the inside back cover, the book may have been read by no more than ten people at one of the outstanding research libraries in the country. There is no record in the book of its having been checked out for the next decade, at least. I cannot know what happened beyond that, for the library's circulation procedures changed in the early 1950s. From that time on, the date-due stamp and charge card were abandoned in the back of the book, artifacts of an earlier time when anyone whose signature was on the card could be expected to be known by the librarian. In any case, I found out that the subject of The Chained Library, like the older procedures for keeping circulation records, was generally not known to younger librarians. They did not share my interest in the history of libraries, or at least not that of their furniture and ways.
After I had read The Chained Library, and before it John Willis Clark's The Care of Books, the seminal work on the subject, I found myself visiting Yale University and the Beinecke, one of the premier rare-book libraries in the world. I was graciously shown around by a very enthusiastic and helpful guide, but when I asked if the library held any books that still retained traces of the hardware by which they were once chained, he could not answer. However, with the help of the computerized catalog, a library clerk was able to search for the word "chain" among all the descriptions of the library's holdings. There were plenty of items relating to the chain stitching used in old bindings, and there were also a few books in the collection that still bore the marks of where a chain had once been attached to the leather-covered and boss-studded wooden board in which the book was bound. According to the computer, there was also at least one book that has part of a real chain still attached, and I asked to see it. The book is kept in a custom-made box that holds the several heavy black chain links in a compartment separate from the one that holds the book, thus protecting the leather from abrasion by the wrought iron. The artifact seemed to be as curious to those behind the service counter as it was to me, further confirming my growing confidence that the story of the chained book, which is central to the story of the bookshelf, was one that had to be told, not only for its inherent interest but also for its relevance as a case study — a bookcase study — in the evolution of an artifact, a tool for explaining how technology is embedded in and shapes our culture.
It is understandable that most of us think more about books than about bookshelves, but there have been those who have given the infrastructure its due. Henry Cuyler Bunner, longtime editor of the humor magazine Puck, went so far as to write:
I have a bookcase, which is what
Many much better men have not.
There are no books inside, for books,
I am afraid might spoil its looks.
Though books may indeed spoil some bookcases, sometimes it is the bookcases that are rough on the books and almost discourage their use. When I moved into my present office at Duke, it was already equipped with bookcases that were handsome and adjustable in shelf height. Because the bookcases are made of heavy particle board beneath their walnut veneer and because the shelves are deep but not very long, they are sturdy and show no visible sag under the heaviest load of books. The bookcases are, however, not very tall, so I adjusted the shelf supports to accommodate the maximum number of shelves at the necessary heights to hold the variety of book sizes that I wanted to have in the office. As a result, I have my books grouped largely by height, and there is little room left above the books on any of the shelves. Indeed, on some tightly packed shelves there is hardly room to get a firm grip on a book to remove it from the shelf. According to one guide on how to care for books, the test of whether they are packed too tightly on the shelves is this: "Can you grasp the sides of a book with your index and middle fingers and your thumb, and gently remove it from the shelf without dislodging the books on either side?" In my case, I cannot, and I must follow the good advice in Martha Stewart Living: "To retrieve a book, push in the books at either side and pull gently."
A common procedure, when there is room of course, is to place one's finger on the top of a book and pull gently against the headband to rotate the book in its place until its top corner projects out enough from the other books on the shelf for it to be grasped and removed. Martha Stewart Living does not approve: "Never hook your finger over the top of the spine." The problem with doing so is that, when the books are too tightly squeezed together on the shelf, it can lead to broken fingernails or, perhaps worse, to torn book bindings. As a nineteenth-century "handy-book" warned, "Never pull a book from the shelf by the head-band; do not toast them over the fire, or sit on them, for 'Books are kind friends, we benefit by their advice, and they reveal no confidences.' "
Books and bookshelves were viewed more mechanically by the inventor Charles Coley, of Culver City, California, who looked into the matter of taking books off the shelf and found "no prior art which attempts to solve the problem." In 1977 he received a patent on a "book ejection apparatus," which consists of a springboard-like device that fits against the entire back wall of the bookcase and "utilizes an action-reaction" principle to eject a book from its position. To remove a book, one counterintuitively pushes the book against the bookshelf's back wall. This compresses the springs behind the board, and the spring force pushes the desired volume out from between its neighbors. (The device is similar to those hidden cabinet-door latches, whereby one pushes in on the door to get it to open out.) Like many inventions, Coley's might take some getting used to in order to operate properly — which it might not ever do anyway if the books are too tightly packed into the bookcase.
Putting a book back on the shelf in such circumstances can be as difficult as putting a sardine back in a can. A bookshelf appears to abhor a vacuum, and so the void that is created when one book is removed is seldom adequate to receive the book again. Like a used air mattress or roadmap, which can never seem to be folded back into the shape in which it came, the book opened seems to have a new dimension when reclosed. Where it once fit it no longer does, and it has to be used as a wedge to pry apart its formerly tolerant neighbors in order to get a foothold on the shelf. Invariably, the book I push back into its place scrapes along its neighbors and pushes them back a little. Where there is ample room above them, the disturbed books can be realigned with a little effort. However, in my office, where I cannot easily reach in to pull the books back out and align their spines, I find myself pushing the whole shelf back a bit to realign them. I cannot just push the books all the way to the rear of the shelf, of course, because they do not all have the same width, and so the shelf of them would present a rather ragged appearance. In time, however, so many of the books end up pushed all the way back that I have to take a whole section of them out and reposition them near the front edge of the shelf.
The arrangement of my books deep in the bookcase had not bothered me, because I generally preferred to keep them a couple of inches back from the front edge of the shelf anyway. When or why I began to do this, I cannot say, but I do not recall, before experimenting while writing this book, that I ever pulled my books all the way to the front of the shelf, unless the deepest book in the line was as wide as the shelf was deep, thus necessitating all the other books to be pulled forward if there were to be any alignment at all. Having a few inches of shelf in front of the books seemed natural and desirable to me, to balance the few inches of shelf in the back. The books were thus centered from front to back, putting nearly equal loads on the shelf supports, which seemed structurally neat and appropriate. Unlike in an institutional library, where the shelves are often facing narrow aisles and where at the ends of the shelf books pushed back from the edge might not easily be seen as one walks down the aisle, in my home and office the bookshelves are against the wall, with more than an aisle's width to stand away and view them head on. I find books pulled forward to the edge of a shelf make the bookcase look top-heavy and a bit tight for them, like a suit one has outgrown. Books at the edge also make my bookcases look two-dimensional, without depth, somewhat like wallpaper. Where bookshelf headroom exists, there is some depth provided by the ragged space above the books, of course, but having shadows before the books in addition gives them a more cradled look.
The recessed alignment of books on my bookshelves also gives me a narrow shelf space before the books where I can keep mementos like pencils and letter openers. It all seemed sensible to me until one day a writer visiting my office expressed surprise at my arrangement and remarked that he always pulled his books forward to the edge of his bookshelves and thought that was the proper way to display them. I did not have a definitive answer for him at the time, and I still do not, but I have since learned that the literary critic Alfred Kazin kept his books well back from the edge of the shelf, giving him room to display photos of his grandchildren and to lay down books being read. Like so many questions of design and the human adaptation to and interface with technology, there are arguments that can be presented in support of either option. I was, however, pleased to have the visitor question my book arrangement, for it assured me that I was not alone in thinking about bookcases and how to use them. But how do we proceed in thinking about such things?
A book on the bookshelf is something to be taken down and read; the bookshelf under the book is something to be installed and forgotten. The one object is in service to the other, superior to the other — or such is the conventional wisdom — and the inferior object is something we seldom think about or have reason to. Yet all people and things, common or exalted, have their stories to tell and be told, and these seem more often than not to be gripping tales, full of surprising twists and turns, and always instructive.
About the Author
Henry Petroski is the Alexander S.Vesic Professor of Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University, where he also serves as chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
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