The Pencil: A History

Henry Petrowski
Paperback: 448 pages Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (7 April 2003) Language: English ISBN-10: 057121763X ISBN-13: 978-0571217632

The Book on the Bookshelf

Henry Petrowski
Paperback: 300 pages Publisher: Vintage Books (12 Sept. 2000) Language: English ISBN-10: 0375706399 ISBN-13: 978-0375706394
by Alan Taylor

Books, Shelves and Pencils

January 29, 2017 | by Alan Taylor

ACCORDING to a survey conducted for Aviva, an insurance company, one in ten people does not own a book. The figure rises to one in five when confined to young uns between the ages of 18 and 24. Why Aviva initiated this exercise I know not, still less do I care. However, I am not in the least surprised by the result. Quite often I go into houses in which there are no books. Indeed I have a neighbour who likes the look of books but doesn’t feel the need to read or own one. He has solved the problem with wallpaper which is book patterned. If only he had mentioned this to me before he called in a decorator I could have supplied him with enough books to camouflage several walls.

Those of us who love books and cannot imagine life without them are perplexed by people who feel differently. Books, as Anthony Powell famously said, do furnish a room. We have reached the stage where virtually every wall in our flat is spoken for. Books are everywhere, in cupboards, by bedsides, under beds, on floors and chairs, not to mention on shelves. 

The quest for the perfect book shelf has been lifelong and remains ongoing. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect book shelf. For example, in the room in which I am presently situated, the shelves go from floor to ceiling. All of them are of similar depth and width, which is okay for standard hardbacks. But they cannot accommodate books that are bigger. Elsewhere there are a couple of Billy bookcases, bought from Ikea. They’re fine up to a point but I’ve noticed that over time they have a tendency to buckle, which is not so fine. Our best bookcases were custom-made for my wife who must have had money to burn at some stage. Even empty they looked beautiful. Now they’re so jam-packed you can’t see the wood for the books. 

In  the Strand bookshop in New York a few years ago I came across Henry Petrowski’s The Book on the Book Shelf, which I fell upon with infantile delight. In the appendix Petrowski considers the order in which it is best to shelve books. Most collectors prefer to arrange their books by author or subject or, in my case, by a combination of both. Novels, for instance, are shelved alphabetically by their authors’ surnames while travel and history books are arranged alphabetically by country. There are, though, numerous other possible arrangements, such as by date of acquisition or colour of cover, which is a favourite of interior designers. If you were so inclined you could also arrange books by price, degree of enjoyment, sentimental value, even – pace trainspotters! – by International Standard Book Number.

It is only relatively recently, Petrowski says, that books have been displayed with their spines out. Previously it was common to display them with their spines in. If you want to know why this was the case and what happened to change the custom you must get a hold of The Book on the Book Shelf. I also recommend the same author’s The Pencil: A History, in which – among many other fascinating facts – I learned that on average you could probably draw a line seventy miles long with a single pencil. Very few folk know that.

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