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,...


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