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.