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The Book on the Book Shelf

So delightful! I languished over this book for weeks and weeks because I couldn’t really stand to be done with it. The book is a detailed history of shelving, or the ways we have stored our books since before there were books. Petroski starts with papyrus and gets all the way to ebooks before wrapping it up. Not only is this book interesting to read, but it is also fun to look at because there are many many illustrations of the various shelving apparati that the author describes. In many cases there is simply not much known about the book storage devices of the time and so Petroski paints a word picture of how he thinks the devices would work. Lovely illustrations of chain libraries, Saint Jerome, big old libraries and books galore. The author is certainly a lover of books and yet this book strives to answer the question “how do we decide how to store these books for use, not just for looks?” The conclusions he comes up with -- and the appendix listing the various orderings ones book collection could be put into is a delight -- are practical, well-reasoned and entertaining.

Remaking the World : Adventures in Engineering

Petroski’s book on the history of book shelving stands apart from the whole “history of the thing through the eyes fo the thing” genre as best in class. I enjoy his matter of fact style, his general interest in the trivia of the things he discusses and his willingness to debunk commonly held misunderstandings about things instead of just repeating things he has heard. He is a researcher and writer of my favorite kind and every time I pick up a book by him I am giddy with anticipation. This book was just one more delight.

The book is a collection of essays about engineering. That alone should be enough to make you run screaming if you’re new to this sort of thing. However Petroski finds the interesting parts, the quirky bits, the weird and famous personalities and the big messes that always make great storytelling. He explains how Nobel, an engineer, became the benefactor of a series of prizes none of which went to engineering. He describes the design and building of the tallest buildings in the world. He explains what “back of envelope” design is and why it’s important. He makes a very good case that engineering is one of the most important and yet most overlooked contributors to successful modern capitalism. Fascinating stuff.

Small Things Considered

The short thesis of this book is that there is no perfect design because everyone expects different things out of a product, whether it’s ease of use, cpst of building or ease of mass-producing. Petroski explains this for 300 pages or so with anecdotes ranging from his own reflections in his water glass to the history of the paper bag. Unlike other books of his which are often heavy research without as much reflection, this book almost swings too far the other way and has a lot of his ruminations on the design of everyday things. While this is interesting, sometimes it veers into what seems to be petty personal issues with design which are less interesting to me personally than, say, the actual history of the cup holder.

So it goes back and forth, sometimes tending towards deep explanations of everyday things and sometimes just personal observations. I didn’t feel this book was one of his strongest unless you really want to get to know Petroski the man, but it’s still full of weird little facts that you really wouldn’t find otherwise.

To Engineer is Human

A really slow book from Petroski. While I was hoping for a lot of in-depth looks at engineering failures, this book was way more full of metaphors for engineering processes -- many relying on cute stories about Petroski’s own family -- than looks at specifics. The stories he does relate, about the design and building of the Crystal Palace and the Kansas City Hyatt walk way collapse, are worthwhile but the rest of the book doesn’t hold together as interestingly as those chapters.

To Forgive Design

Another great book about bridge collapses! No, I am serious. If you like Petroski’s slightly rambling style, this is a great book about engineering, engineering education, bridge collapses and other engineering failures and how a profession “learns” over time how to do more good stuff and less bad stuff. A lot of great stories and a little overlong but generally quite good reading.

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure

It’s a little tough to read anything that has bad news in it since in These Weird Times I sort of can’t handle bad news. That said I enjoy the way Petroski can be sort of straightforward about talking about things like the US’s crumbling infrastructure (roads and bridges mainly) and have some ideas of what we can do about it. I learned a lot of good road and highway history and trivia from this book which is a little more readable than some of his straight engineering titles.

Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering

[review pending]