»  The New Criterion

November 1999

  Serious About Books

The Book on the Bookshelf
        by Henry Petroski


Going out on a limb here, I shall hazard a guess that readers of this periodical are more bookish than the average. Probably they have all, like this reviewer, wrestled with the problems of organizing and shelving their books. The subject matter of Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf will therefore be close to their hearts, for this is a survey of, and commentary upon, the many ways that have been devised of storing, retrieving and consulting books, from the ancient world to the present day and on all scales from the domestic to the institutional.

The author is actually a professor of civil engineering and the Chinese idiom san ju bu li ben hang is apt: "He can't say three sentences unconnected with his profession." Everything is seen here through the eyes of the engineer — detached, precise, and sober with responsibility, with the awareness of consequences. (In civil, hardly less than in military, engineering, the price of failure can be a heap of corpses.) If Petroski were a less imaginative person, or a less gifted writer, this would make for a very dull book. In fact The Book on the Bookshelf is a pleasure to read, stocked with a wealth of fascinating, sometimes astonishing, detail yet never rambling or departing for long from its set course. It is an excellent companion for — could be shelved next to! — Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading.

One of the book's major themes is light. Books must be stored where they can be identified for retrieval; and once retrieved, there must be a place where they can be taken to be read. Both book stacks and reading desks therefore need light, either natural or artificial. Until a hundred years ago the only type of artificial illumination available was the flame of burning wax, oil or gas. For obvious reasons, those responsible for storing and displaying books were reluctant to introduce this element into their domain. They therefore did the best they could with natural light; and the design of spaces for keeping and using books, from the individual study cell to the huge institutional library, was for most of history dominated by efforts to maximize incident sunlight. For nearly all of that period this came down to matters of fenestration; at the very end, following improvements in materials science, some minor innovations in flooring were added — metal grilles, as in the stacks of the British Museum Library, or glass, for example at the University of Illinois. (Your glass floor was, of course, my glass ceiling; but the glass used was sufficiently thick and irregular that objects seen above were unclear. "This feature enabled women to wear skirts and dresses into the stacks without worry," the author assures us.) Professor Petroski's discussion of library design in the pre-electric age culminates with detailed yet very lucid descriptions of those masterpieces of the form: Antonio Panizzi's British Museum Reading Room and Bernard Green's Library of Congress.

Once electric light became easily available there was no longer any need to bother about directing sunlight onto book surfaces. Inevitably the insights gathered painfully over centuries were discarded along with the problem they had attempted to solve:

Even when they are readily accessible, books can be hard to see. The ubiquitous availability of electric lighting in the later twentieth century has allowed libraries to install bookshelve with little attention as to how they are arranged with respect to natural lighting, and in some cases this seems to have led to a total disregard for lighting altogether, natural or artificial.

In a chapter titled "The Care of Books" Professor Petroski offers practical advice on the storage of books at home. He has sensible things to say on such topics as the "dead space" created when bookshelves meet at the interior corners of a room, a thing that has vexed me for years. The central problem here, though, is of course just that of finding, or creating, shelf space for one's ever-proliferating library. Speaking as a person who cannot bear to throw books out (how I winced at the moment in 84 Charing Cross Road when Helene Hanff says: "I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I'm never going to read again …"! How do you know you're never going to read them again?) I was interested to see the author's solution to the problem of where to put them all. I myself have resorted to filling my attic with plastic utility shelving from Home Depot, but the good professor shows me up as a weak-willed amateur:

[K]itchen and pantry cabinets can be commandeered in the fight to find bookshelf space, and a family's eating habits can be changed. When the china is displaced by paper plates, there is no longer any reason why books cannot be stored in the dishwasher too. An empty refrigerator is an excellent repository for the most valuable of books because books like low temperatures best …

The dishwasher? The refrigerator? Here is a man who is serious about books.

He has, I think, also shown an engineer's precision of judgment in his choice of subject. There is just room in three hundred pages to say everything of general interest that can be said about book storage and handling. The author can therefore savor the satisfaction of hearing his book called (by me, at any rate) "definitive." I do not see that there is anything left to say. Did you know that Napoleon had a bookshelf in his carriage, and tossed books out of the window when he had finished them? That in the mid-nineteenth century there was a fad for trompe l'oeil books on bookshelves, often with whimsical titles — The Scottish Boccaccio by D. Cameron, etc.? That Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of nineteenth-century British politics, "had strong opinions about how to shelve books"? (I think there was nothing he did not have strong opinions about, actually.) That books were around for 1200 years before they began to be shelved spine outward? All literary, historical and artistic bases have been touched.

Not all literary bases, perhaps. In one of his newspaper pieces the late Flann O'Brien invented the trade of Book Soiler. This fellow would, for a modest fee, come round to your house and soil your books, dog-earing a page here, spilling a little coffee there and making sure all uncut pages were cut, so that your books — and by extension you yourself — looked well-read. I offer this morsel to Professor Petroski for inclusion in future editions of The Book on the Bookshelf, in gratitude for a most enjoyable read. Now, where shall I put it?