I recently read a fantastic book detailing the technology of books and bookshelves in the western world called The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. I recommend reading it if you’re a bookworm or interested in learning about basic things that we take for granted.
The main questions this book answers are: “How and why did we get books in the form they are today? How and why did we get bookshelves in the form they are today?
The Book on the Bookshelf goes through the history of books in the western world, starting with scrolls, tablets, etc and going all the way through 1999 (when it was published), when e-readers were in development. This book is worth it if only for the (sometimes hilarious) speculation and analysis the potential effects of e-readers and e-books. It also goes into how we came to organize the books the way we do, and goes over the different ways of arranging books, which I found fascinating because I am constantly reorganizing my personal library.
However, whether or not you end up reading it, I’m going to share some (BUT NOT ALL) of my favorite facts that I learned from this book:
- capsae are adorable-looking hat-boxes that one could use to carry one’s scrolls about with them. I want to get some scrolls and then I want to get a capsae and I want to frolic around and whip out my scrolls whenever I need to look up fun facts.
- Apparently in the 11th century, English Benedictines had really strict rules on using the limited-and-precious books they had. In some monasteries, the librarian would assign ONE book per brother per year to read. At the end of the year, the librarian would gather all the brothers and read off their names and the book they had been assigned. If the brother had NOT read their assigned book, they had to confess their terrible literary sin on their knees to the librarian. I’m not saying we should bring this one back, but….
- Books were stored in locked chests, but eventually the chests were turned on one end and left open and shelves put in, leading to the first armarium which turned into bookshelves!
- Monasteries had the biggest collections of books until the Reformation, when they DESTROYED ALL THE MONASTERIES AND BURNED ALL THE BOOKS because no one has any religious chill. The printing press took a while to replace all of those big collections. Boo!
- Spines were considered ugly for a VERY LONG TIME, like until the 17th/18th centuries. Books were shelved with their spines facing the back, because no one wants to look at that ugly thing. Sometimes librarians used slips of paper sticking out of the pages to mark what book it was, since titles weren’t on the spines and the spines were facing the back.
There’s lots more where those came from! I really enjoyed this book, although I’d love to read something similar that looks at book technology around the world. This one didn’t often specify if/what technology we received from or gave to the middle-east, east, etc.