Introducing ‘The Book Book’

One of the typesetting machines on display at the Gutenberg Museum.

While most woodworkers have built a basic bookcase, few have paused to consider the long, complicated and interesting relationship between the history of the book itself and the shelves, cases, stands and lecterns that hold it.

Unlike most furniture, which is designed to suit the human form, bookcases are based on the standard sizes of books, which just might be related to the size of a medieval sheep or calf (seriously).

Parchment making. From Die Hausbucher der Nurnberger

Kieran Binnie and I have decided to plumb the intertwined history of the book and the casework that displays and protects it. This book, which we are calling “The Book Book,” will explore the origins of bookmaking and the allied development of bookcases, from the time when books were handwritten and chained to the furniture all the way up to the ubiquitous IKEA bookcase.

Along the way, Kieran and I will build some of the more interesting projects we dig up from the historical record. As of now, we have a list of a dozen projects for the book, but I’m sure that will change as our research progresses.

Kieran’s initial explorations have already turned up information about book production that – as a publisher – is quite shocking. Most publishers (me included) think the birth of large-scale book manufacturing occurred when the Chinese and Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. That’s just not so.

There is lots of evidence that specialized book manufacturing was thriving for hundreds of years before Gutenberg – and not just for royals and the wealthy. And so our search for the earliest origins of the bookcase also will extend way before Gutenberg.

To be sure, we have a lot of work ahead of us. Kieran has completed his work on “The Life & Work of John Brown,” and the remainder of that book is in the hands of Christopher Williams. So Kieran has been diving deep into the historical record and is pulling me along for the ride.

As always, we’ll be sharing the stuff we learn here on the blog. In addition to the research and building, I’m looking forward to designing this book, which will likely resemble some of the early books I got to see on a tour of the Gutenberg museum in Mainz, Germany, in 2017. So expect lots of non-standard typography, layouts and even book structure.

— Christopher Schwarz and Kieran Binnie (visit his blog Over the Wireless)

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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55 Responses to Introducing ‘The Book Book’

  1. johncashman73 says:

    Linking bookmarking and woodworking is a fascinating idea. I look forward to it.

    Your working title is execrable.

    Like

  2. Rich Wile says:

    Sounds like a very cool collaboration, can’s wait to see this evolve.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave Polaschek says:

    During a visit to Trinity College in Dublin, I first saw bookcases with the bottom shelf sloped back, which makes the books on that lowest shelf easier to see without having to bend down quite so far. Small feature, but when I had bookcases built for my house, I had that feature incorporated. You wouldn’t believe how handy it turns out to be as a guy ages and gets less flexible…

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    • Gav says:

      I need to figure out how to do that with our floor when playing with my kids.

      Like

    • andymckenzie617 says:

      That’s a really good idea. I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I start planning more book storage. (It’s an ongoing problem.)

      Like

  4. Have you done any research into the Edward Bernays Bookcase story? It is usually summarized as booksellers of America wanted to sell more books, so they consulted Bernays. In turn, Bernays convinced home-builders to build bookshelves directly into people’s houses. I have no idea if this story is true, or what the bookcases might have looked like. Regardless, I figured it might interest you.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. mike says:

    I think the word “shocking” or “shockingly” should be incorporated into your daughter’s next batch of stickers as it seems to be a favorite of yours 🙂 Maybe a “Ride the Lightning” motif.

    This will be a cool book. Good luck.

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  6. Becky Crosby says:

    I can’t wait. This sounds like a winner.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. NR Hiller says:

    This sounds fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Robert Brazile says:

    So looking forward to this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Loxmyth says:

    As a past/occasional letterpress operator, I’m definitely interested in seeing what you come up with.

    Movable type permitted less expensive mass production of new books. Engraving/cuts preceeded movable type. Handwritten bound books go back much farther, of course; farther still if you consider scrolls, farther yet if you consider non-portable and/or non-alphabet records… So the first question has to be how you want to define “book”.

    There are already many good references for that, which of course you’re aware of, and some excellent books on library architecture, but I’m not sure how much has been done specifically on gathering the construction details and presenting them for study/reproduction. So you may indeed have identified a significant gap –and even if anticipated, I expect you’ll find some new insights, as with your workbench research.

    Sounds like fun. Go for it

    (Would a study of existing literature about books and publishing be a book book book? You know the old joke about the chicken in the library, of course…)

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    • Loxmyth says:

      Incidental side note might be the evolution of type cases. There’s plenty of history of how the arrangement of compartments for letters evolved, but I don’t know if anyone has looked as how the cabinet and drawers themselves might have changed over time.

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  10. Richard Mahler says:

    Fascinating project. As a graphic designer who was often involved in book and cover design, which led me to study bookbinding and restoration as an offshoot of my antique book collecting, and also as a lifelong woodworker, this book I will purchase! You might be interested in seeing my plan for a contemporary bookcase unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere, also an offshoot of all the above..

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  11. J.C. aka BLZeebub says:

    I am a book hoarder. There, I said it. I don’t always read them but if someone I respect as a reader tells me I should check one out, I’m in. Sometimes I’ll buy a paperback and love it then throw down for the hardback. Sometimes I’ll buy the audio version, love it, and buy the hardback. Leather the better. I’ve been replacing my favorites (classics) with Easton Press leather bound versions. I know, I know, it’s a problem but… my hangovers are easy. I just check my independent bookseller’s recommendations and… oh well.

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  12. Michael S says:

    The classic tome in this area is written by possibly the world’s greatest explainer, Henry Petroski. You can read about him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Petroski. But the book he wrote that is relevant to this posting is the wonderful “The Book on the Bookshelf”.

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    • Brian Crawley says:

      I’ll second this— was going to post the same comment but then thought I’d check first to see if it had been. I read _The Book on the Bookshelf_ years ago and still think about it often. Oh, and comments after this too.

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  13. Chris Grant says:

    Looking forward to it! There is a similar book in Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf, which I have been shamelessly ignoring. I may have to pick both up and do a comparative read.

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    • gregorygerstnergmailcom says:

      The “Book on the Bookshelf” is fascinating, but ironically, not the kind of book that you keep on the bookshelf. You read it and pass it along to another book freak. Likewise with “The Chained Library”; something to read online.

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  14. Bert Vanderveen says:

    The size of manuscripts may have been dictated by the size of lambskins, but manuscripts were not kept in bookcases. Printed books became more of a commodity when paper production took off. Paper was initially made by hand. When one worker was involved, the maximum size was dictated by this person’s reach (he had to hold the frame with mesh that was dipped into the ‘soup’). [Larger sizes of paper were made by pasting sheets together or produced with two persons using a larger frame (quite rare).]
    The largest book size was a folio (one sheet of paper folded once), but quarto (two folds) was more common. Printed books were kept in cases (closed boxes ar first) and later on in bookcases — and that is where it all starts…
    So that skin story needs revising.

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    • Bert,

      I hope you will withhold judgment until you see what Kieran has dug up. His sources are extensive and he has the help of his formidable spouse in this matter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The earliest pictorial representation I’ve found so far of what we’d recognise as a bookcase is from the 8th century. But I’m sure there is source material out there which would date the bookcase even earlier. 8th century lands us firmly in animal skin territory, and well before a standardised set of book sizes. This is just the start of the breadcrumb trail – there’s a lot left to uncover.

        Like

  15. Steve Baisden says:

    I’ll be looking forward to this book. Two of my favorite things: books and woodworking…also most anything by Mr Schwarz.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Luke Maddux says:

    Ok, this I will buy.

    Also, what’s the status of the stage Frid book?

    Like

  17. Scott Meek says:

    Looking forward to this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Al says:

    Will there be a book book video video or tape tape?
    I kid of course. Looking forward to it

    Like

  19. Roland Stewart Chapman says:

    The world would be a far poorer place without nutters such as yourself

    Like

  20. Peter says:

    Chris, Back in college I read a book called “The Gutenberg Elegies: The fate of reading in an electronic age”. I remember loving it, but that was also the very early 90s… and college. Regardless, for a book lover, it’s worth a look despite being a bit heavy handed in the luddite territory. https://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/18/books/are-there-books-in-our-future.html
    LOVE the title. Spot on. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

    Like

  21. John says:

    How possible / practical would it be to print this book on an antique type set, and maybe a hide cover and title page?

    Like

    • tsstahl says:

      Hmm, it could be subtitled “Another Canticle for Leibowitz”. 🙂

      Like

    • Loxmyth says:

      Possible, certainly. The equipment still exists and is in use. But making it affordable for a relatively short run would be very difficult. I know someone who was hand-setting a poetry chapbook, and even with volunteer labor and relatively short content the number of hours involved defeated the project. Admittedly that was with a hand-fed press; something like a Heidelberg “windmill” sheet-feeder would help a lot.

      Like

  22. Greg says:

    Sounds wonderful. More enlightening information that we can’t find in a magazine. Anything Chris is involved in, turns golden.

    Like

  23. Gene Wiggs says:

    If you haven’t seen Henry Petroski’s book “The Book on the Bookshelf” it’s worth a look. Lot’s of history and great references.

    Like

  24. Alex Galt says:

    I’d pre-order this second I am such the target for this book. I might actually have enough books about the history of books to warrant building a small bookcase.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Starius says:

    I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear this.
    I’ve looked for information on book case sizing in the past with little positive result. (I have found some great nuggets here and in some of your other books though)
    But I’ve actually been planning to take large cross sections of my book collections to to measure average sizes – in an attempt to make the best book cases of optimal sizes for my home library.
    Whatever you find on the history of book case creation, I know I’ll be keenly interested in.
    Sign me up for a copy right away.
    Also, what will be the dimensions of this book? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  26. jenohdit says:

    I haven’t read it but I’m told there is a book called “The Book on the Bookshelf” that may have been the final word on this topic.

    If I might suggest an alternate title/subject how about “Birdie McBirdhouse?” A purple martin house is a kind of bookcase if you think about it. Hausbucher means “house book” so the omens are favorable.

    Like

  27. KEVIN HEDIN says:

    Sounds awesome. Looking forward to this.

    Like

  28. Bruce Lee says:

    I’d have to buy several, one for me and one for each of several friends. And a warning – there are potentially several thousand extra buyers out there in both Calligraphy land and Living History land who will want a copy (probably they will hold out for the paperback or .pdf).

    Like

  29. sjldwoodworking says:

    Awesome concept. In addition to woodworking, I collect old books, so this is gold for me. Thank you.

    Like

  30. David says:

    I can’t recommend “The Shallows” more to you. The book examines the innovations within the written world (such as introducing spaces between words, and silent reading), and how such changes changed the way we think. The second half becomes a critique of internet media, although it may err on the side of being a jeremiad, it also does a good job of reminded ourselves of some of the promises we had towards new media that hadn’t delivered. You don’t even have to read the second half.

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  31. sjldwoodworking says:

    Chris,

    One suggestion as part of your research. When I visited Lyndhurst Mansion in NY (Tarrytown) there were some very interesting book cases (at least to me). They were in the mansion’s Gothic revival style, but what was more interesting were the shelves. There was a secondary elevated level to each shelf so that they could display two rows of books on a single shelf. It was like a two row spice rack, but for books. They explained this was because books were a status symbol, and people wanted to show them off. I’ve always thought it would be fun to build a set of bookcases like that. Curious if you see more examples as you do the research. My guess is you will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Starius says:

      I’ve found a picture that shows what you are talking about…. that is very interesting!

      I’ve never seen that before.
      And even without that feature, they are beautiful bookcases! I hope to make some like that myself, some day.

      Like

  32. John Sunnygard says:

    A heart-stopping convergence of my passions – books, woodworking and thanks to LAP, erudite woodworking. My pre-publication order is now in – PDF first, then already read tribute to authorship and printing on my shelf awaiting – between trips to the shop – another reading! Gutenberg is a newbie, I hope you are able to go beyond northern Europe in your research. The ancient works stem from what we know as the “Arab World” of course Alexandria, Jerusalem, but also Seville (Morocco during the “convivencia”). And then of course China. May wish to consider volume 1 & 2. Thank you for your boundless curiosity and work!

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  33. mallasch says:

    My Grandfather was a printer and had a Linotype like the one you included in his shop. Like all the grandchildren, I learned how to set lead type (which might explain a few things now…;-), oil old cast iron presses, and keep my hands out of spinning presses, that Linotype brought back a lot of memories!

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