Likely Stories: The Book on the Book Shelf by Henry Petroski

May 4, 2017

An unlikely premise turns into an informative and wonderful romp in the history of shelves


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Quite a few years ago, I learned of a book about pencils.  I thought it was silly, so I passed it by without a second thought—that is until now.  The author of The Pencil has now written a book about bookshelves.  Boring you say?  I wondered about that, too, but from the first page I was trapped.  Henry Petroski is the author of The Book on the Book Shelf.  It turns out he also authored a staggeringly long paean to the humble pencil.  Need I mention a copy of The Pencil arrived while I was writing this review? 

The Book on the Book Shelf is an interesting look at the evolution of book shelves from Alexandria all the way to modern libraries with all sorts of digital tools and equipment to keep track of, sort, and shelve tens of thousands of books.  I must admit I was incredulous that such a book existed, or would be widely read, yet, I secretly yearned to find out what it is all about.  This may not seem exciting, but the first page put me on a thrilling ride through history.  I will never again look at my bookshelves as mere furniture.  As Petroski writes, “One evening, while reading in my study, I looked up from my book and saw my bookshelves in a new and different light.  Instead of being just places on which to store books, the shelves themselves intrigued me as artifacts in their own right” (ix).  This is the first sentence of the preface, and I immediately closed the book, and looked at my shelves.  I realized each had a story to tell, and each held remembrances of all the decades we had spent together.

Petroski tells us “over 50,000 books are published each year in America alone” (5).  I wish I didn’t know this fact.  Now I will never catch up!  Every time I visit friends or family, I find time to slip away and examine their shelves.  I believe a lot can be learned by examining a library.  One time, to my horror, I visited a “friend-of-a-friend’s house and could not find a single book—except for some cookbooks in the kitchen.  I was stunned!  How awful that must be to live without books.  Cicero wrote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”  Petroski writes, “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” (4).  I must admit I take on a reverential calm when I am among my books or merely walking down the hall.

Petroski has chapters on scrolls and manuscripts, printing and binding, and of course Medieval monks bent over an illuminated manuscript.  He explains how books became chained to library tables.  He also includes dozens of intriguing drawings of medieval scholars reading at desks which have a variety of solutions to storing books in the background.  The Book on the Book Shelf belongs in every library along with Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Sears Subject Headings, and an O.E.D.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!