Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Book on the Bookshelf ~ by Henry Petroski, 1999

Question for my readers:
Do you align books at the front edge of your shelves? Or way back from the edge? Or an inch back? Why? Or do you stack your books, instead?
The Book on the Bookshelf ~ by Henry Petroski (1999, history) is about the shelves where we put our books. I'll start with a couple of quotes from the book:
"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 the 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 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" (p. 12).

"For centuries, the spine was shelved inward..." (p. 22).
Another question: Do any of you shelve your books with the spine toward the back of the bookshelf? Why? When I owned a bookstore, I was surprised at the number of people who inserted books "backwards" after browsing, so I'm really curious.

For the record, I shelve my books with the spine out and usually slightly back from the edge. In my bedroom, however, the top shelf of one bookcase has all the books pushed to the back. Why? Because that's where I empty my pockets each night -- I usually wear jeans and have pens, paper, and cell phone in my pockets, ever handy for making notes or inquiries.

What did I like about this book?
The author gives us a history of books, back to when they were scrolls, and the storage problems along the way. Scrolls were rolled up, so shelves like mine wouldn't work very well. Imagine, instead, storage racks similar to wine racks. But how would you ever find the one scroll you wanted? The earliest books didn't have titles on the spines, leaving readers with the same problem of finding what was wanted. I was happy to have the illustrations for what the author was talking about. But most of all I liked finding things I just had to write down:
"Is an empty bookshelf an oxymoron?" (p. 22).

"The more things change, the more they remain insane" (p. 222).

"When I travel, I find myself drawn into bookstores and to books I wonder if I will ever see again. Many of these volumes must be bought, of course, lest the opportunity to possess them be lost, and I have lugged inordinate numbers of titles through airports and squeezed overstuffed bags into undersized overhead bins (ill-formed bookshelves of a sort?)" (p. 230).

"It is a spectator sport to look at someone else's books, if not an act of voyeurism or armchair psychology" (p. 6).

"The use of electric lights in bookstacks became firmly established in the early part of the twentieth century" (p. 181).
Note to myself after the last quote: I was born at the right time!

How do I rate this book?
I give it 8 out of 10 because most of it was fun to read, but some parts were dry and tended to drag.


Bookfool said...

I think people put books on the bookshelf backwards because either they're being lazy or they only have one hand free and are trying to put them in spine-first to prevent damage. Not long ago, I was at the library and I had only one hand free. I turned a book I needed to put on the shelf upside-down to open up a space with the spine, so that I wouldn't damage the pages. But, then I rotated it as I put the book on the shelf, making sure that the spine ended up outward.

An older fellow was sitting on a bench a little behind me and to the right, as I did that, and he said, "Oh, that was clever." I turned around and looked at him and he said, "I thought you were going to put that book in upside-down and backwards," and I told him that I was just using the spine to make a space because I didn't want to mess up the pages -- the books were shelved pretty tight. He said, "I figured that out, when I saw what you did. That was really, really clever." LOL He made my day.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Interesting that you were over here commenting on my post while I was at your blog reading chapter one of the book you didn't finish. Yeah, I'll comment there, too. Thanks for rushing over here a couple of days ago to welcome me back into really blogging again.

CJ said...

I put my books all the way back and spines out. I can't even imagine why you'd put a book back with the spine in. How the heck do you know which book is which??


Bonnie Jacobs said...

CJ, exactly!

Unknown said...

My books go spine out, right to the back of the bookshelf - mostly so I can put ornaments or other books in front or on top of them. Yep, not enough bookshelf space (definitely not too many books! ;-) )

SOOOOO good to see you blogging again, Bonnie!