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The Book on the Bookshelf.

PETROSKI, Henry.

1,092 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 0375406492 / ISBN 13: 9780375406492
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999
Hardcover
From Main Street Fine Books & Mss, ABAA (Galena, IL, U.S.A.)

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About this Item

Small 4to. Brown and tan paper over boards with gilt lettering, pictorial dust jacket. x, 290pp. Illustrations. Fine/fine. A tight and pristine third printing of this intriguing study, with a fine red-bordered bookplate signed by Petroski in black fineline on the half-title page. Bookseller Inventory # 37516

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Book on the Bookshelf.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Publication Date: 1999

Binding: Hardcover

Dust Jacket Condition: Dust Jacket Included

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

About this title

Synopsis:

He has been called "the poet laureate of technology" and a writer who is "erudite, witty, thoughtful, and accessible." Now Henry Petroski turns to the subject of books and bookshelves, and wonders whether it was inevitable that books would come to be arranged vertically as they are today on horizontal shelves. As we learn how the ancient scroll became the codex became the volume we are used to, we explore the ways in which the housing of books evolved. Petroski takes us into the pre-Gutenberg world, where books were so scarce they were chained to lecterns for security. He explains how the printing press not only changes the way books were made and shelved, but also increased their availability and transformed book readers into books owners and collectors. He shows us that for a time books were shelved with their spines in, and it was not until after the arrival of the modern bookcase that she spines faced out.

In delightful digressions, Petroski lets Seneca have his say on "the evils of book collecting"; examines the famed collection of Samuel Pepys (only three thousand titles: old discarded to make room for new); and discusses bookselling, book buying, and book collecting through the centuries.

Richly illustrated and wonderfully written, this is the ultimate book on the book: how it came to be and how we have come to keep it.

Review:

Consider the book. Though Goodnight Moon and Finnegan's Wake differ considerably in content and intended audience, they do share some basic characteristics. They have pages, they're roughly the same shape, and whether in a bookstore, library, or private home, they are generally stored vertically on shelves. Indeed, this is so much the norm that in these days of high-tech printing presses and chain bookstores, it's easy to believe that the book, like the cockroach, remains much the same as it ever was. But as Henry Petroski makes abundantly clear in The Book on the Bookshelf, books as we know them have had a long and complex evolution. Indeed, he takes us from the scroll to the codex to the hand-lettered illuminated texts that were so rare and valuable they were chained to lecterns to prevent theft. Along the way he provides plenty of amusing anecdotes about libraries (according to one possibly apocryphal account, the library at Alexandria borrowed the works of the great Greek authors from Athens, had them copied, and then sent the copies back, keeping the originals), book collectors, and the care of books.

Book-lover though he may be, however, Henry Petroski is, first and foremost, an engineer and so, in the end, it is the evolution of bookshelves even more than of books that fascinates him. Pigeonholes for scrolls, book presses containing thousands of chained volumes, rotating lecterns that allowed scholars to peruse more than one book at a time--these are just a few of the ingenious methods readers have devised over the centuries for storing their books: "in cabinets beneath the desks, on shelves in front of them, in triangular attic-like spaces formed under the back-to-back sloped surfaces of desktops or small tabletop lecterns that rested upon a horizontal surface." Placing books vertically on shelves, spines facing outward, is a fairly recent invention, it would seem. Well written as it is, if The Book on the Bookshelf were only about books-as-furniture, it would have little appeal to the general reader. Petroski, however, uses this treatise on design to examine the very human motivations that lie behind it. From the example of Samuel Pepys, who refused to have more titles than his library could hold (about 3,000), to an appendix detailing all the ways people organise their collections (by sentimental value, by size, by colour, and by price, to name a few of the more unconventional methods), Petroski peppers his account with enough human interest to keep his audience reading from cover to cover. --Alix Wilber

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Main Street Fine Books & Manuscripts has been buying and selling quality books, autographs and ephemera since 1991. We specialize in general antiquarian, first editions, signed books and autographs and documents. We are members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA), Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC) and The Manuscript Society.

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