Beans and Bookcases

by Craig Stark

#24, 2 August, 2004

An Interview with Henry Petroski

When you look at a bookcase, whether it's at home, in a bookstore or library, what do you see? Most likely, you don't see the bookcase at all because it's not the bookcase you're interested in. It's what it holds that rivets your attention. The books themselves. Not all of us are built this way, however. Some of us do look at the bookcase itself, and, happily, it's this unconventional seeing that opens the doors of perception to insight that otherwise might escape us.

Henry Petroski, the reigning "poet laureate of technology," has parlayed this kind of seeing into a stunningly successful writing career. No small feat for a professor of civil engineering. Petroski sees the significant in the seemingly insignificant, the big in the small, far better than most. How else could anybody write an entire book about, well, the pencil? (The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.) For that matter, the bookcase? (The Book on the Bookshelf.)

Henry David Thoreau, a former pencil maker (and, among other things, bean farmer), in part inspired Petroski's book on the pencil. In the March-April 2000 American Scientist, Petroski writes: " ... he [Thoreau] believed in the value of the microcosm as a means of making the seemingly inaccessible complexities of the world accessible." Shortly after a visit to Concord and Walden Pond, which included handling some of the Thoreau family pencils, Petroski set out to know pencils as Thoreau had known beans, and then to use the pencil as an expansive seed - to make this small, mundane outcome of design the very metaphor of engineering design itself. And every bit as accessible as Thoreau had made economics. Ultimately, sight becomes Sight.

For book lovers who haven't met Petroski in print, BookThink highly recommends The Book on the Bookshelf as a starting point. Book storage might not seem like the sort of topic to get our hearts thumping, but if you had never read Walden because you thought it was about beans, where would you be today? Something less than you are. The Book on the Bookshelf will expand your understanding of books exponentially. BookThink interviewed Petroski recently and, naturally, had one or two questions about books.

BookThink: At BookThink, obviously, we're vitally interested in books. From the standpoint of design, printed books haven't changed much in the past century. Would you say that we've reached a kind of climax in the evolutionary process? A (near) perfection in book design? Or do you anticipate further changes coming?

Petroski: There have been some changes in design, especially in how books are printed and bound. These changes seem to have been made largely for economic reasons. Today's books are not an improvement for those who enjoyed the texture of letterpress or the sturdiness of sewn signatures. I expect we will continue to see technological developments, but I don't believe we will approach even near perfection. Changes will be driven mostly by economics, which will likely mean trends toward inferior materials and methods of production. One of the chapters that did not make it into my last book, Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, had to do with the book as physical object. Books can be too heavy to hold comfortably for a long period of time. They can be printed on paper that reflects too much light. They can have sharp corners that dig into the hands or, for those who read lying down, the stomach.

BookThink: If you could design the perfect book, what would it look like?

Petroski: I think the look of the "perfect" book would not differ from today's books, but it would be lighter in weight, softer in geometry, and have pages that did not reflect so much light from the paper or the ink.

BookThink: Have you ever been involved in the design of your own books? If not, what would you do differently?

Petroski: I have been involved mostly as a critic. I see the typographical design early on and have on occasion called out for a different and more readable typeface. I have been especially interested in the dust jacket design of my books. In some cases I have been extremely disappointed in the first designs proposed and have been pleased when my editor and publisher have agreed with my opinion. One of my biggest concerns over dust jackets is that so much attention is given to the cover that the spine often seems to have been designed as an afterthought. Mostly though, I have been fortunate to have had Chip Kidd design many of my jackets, and he has been wonderful to work with. His designs are outstanding.

BookThink: A hundred years or more ago, the purpose of the dust jacket or dust wrapper was to serve, well, as a wrapping for the book, and it was routinely discarded as soon as the book was purchased. If there were decorative elements, they were integrated into the boards of the book. Today, it's the dust jacket that has moved front and center, become the focal point, a sort of decorative centerpiece - and in fact, in the case of collectible titles, the dust jacket often increases the value of the book several times over. In many cases, in turn, the book beneath the jacket has become very ho-hum. Do you see this as a happy conclusion for consumers/readers, or would you say that book design has devolved in this sense?

Petroski: I do think many recently published book bindings are nothing much to look at without their jacket off. I think this has again been driven by attempts to keep the production costs of books down. I wrote an essay about dust jackets some years ago. It was published in the New York Times Book Review and reprinted in my book, Beyond Engineering, which incidentally is the only one of my books that is out of print. Perhaps people do not want to be reminded of the problems with books and book design.

BookThink: Ok, given this, would you say that the pressure to keep costs down (in general) is more often a positive force in that it forces the designer to do as much or more with less? Or does this pressure just as frequently produce a drop in quality?

Petroski: I think cost pressures are generally detrimental to quality and good design. The recent NASA motto of "Faster, better, cheaper" has often been ridiculed by engineers as designer, who respond to it with, "Pick two." So, doing something cheaper and better would usually take more time. But time is money to a designer who is charging or billing time to an account. There may, of course, be exceptions that prove the rule.

BookThink: Would you call your approach to writing "organic"? What I mean by this is, in books such as The Pencil and The Book on the Bookshelf you begin with a seed so tiny that it seems it could hardly sprout into a short monograph, let alone a substantial book, and yet there it is 100's of pages later - a living forest of detail and substance. Do you start with the pencil blank and grow it into a forest?

Petroski: I think it is quite fair to describe my writing approach as "organic." B oth books that you mention did in fact begin with a tiny seed of an idea. In the case of The Pencil, the idea was to use the pencil as a vehicle for introducing ideas about engineering. My intention was to use various aspects of the pencil to introduce different chapters, each dealing with a topic like materials, manufacturing processes, reliability, etc. The working title of the book was, With a Pencil: Essays on Engineering and Culture, and that was the title of my project at the National Humanities Center, which gave me a fellowship to work on it. In order to have enough information about the pencil to pull this conceit off, I wanted to know about its history, and I found that was not easy to do. In the end, the book I drafted at the National Humanities Center was more history of the pencil than engineering, and the explicit engineering chapters that survived the writing process interrupted the story. My editor, Ashbel Green, suggested that I revise the manuscript to fill in some blanks about the pencil and tone down the distracting sections. He did me, and I hope readers, a great service.

BookThink: Are books about simple, seemingly insignificant things like pencils and book shelving difficult to research? Does this kind of research require an unconventional approach?

Petroski: Yes, the research can be very difficult and frustrating. I believe that it does require an unconventional approach, one that is open to being pulled in any direction. Strictly disciplinary approaches to scholarship would not be very successful, in my opinion.

BookThink: In a past life, I designed and built furniture - specializing in bookcases. My designs varied widely from simple, functional kits a college student could bang together in a dorm room to elaborate assemblages with fluted stiles, moldings with complex profiles, carved corbels, etc. In the former case, the design was about the books themselves; in the latter, much more about the bookcase, and in fact, some bookcases literally overwhelmed the books that lived in them. Where would you put yourself on the form-and-function scale? Are you a no-nonsense guy, or do you like an occasional if superfluous decorative turn?

Petroski: I would have to put myself somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that sometimes I am the former type and sometimes the latter. My own bookcases are pretty much for my books. I like the bookcases to look like nice furniture, but in the end they are there for my library, which is very much a working library. What I say in my book on the bookshelf is true. I had not really seen my bookcases for the books until one evening a shelf - and not the books on it - leapt out at me and cried for attention.

BookThink: Some of our readers, of course, will be interested in whether or not your books have significant resale value. At the time of this writing, the following books (listed from lowest price to highest) are available for purchase at Amazon for the following prices:

Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design - Used & new from $.45

Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer - Used & new from $1.50

To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design - Used & new from $1.55

The Book on the Bookshelf - Used & new from $2.25

The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers Came to Be as They Are - Used & new from $2.69

Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America - Used & new from $3.33

Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering - Used & new from $5.49

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance - Used & new from $5.99

Invention by Design; How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing - Used & new from $7.00

Design Paradigms : Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering - Used & new from $9.00

Beyond Engineering: Essays and Other Attempts to Figure Without Equations - Used & new from $9.99

Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering - New: $17.00

Granted, there are a number of factors influencing price here, but is there anything to be inferred from this? Is it a simple matter of your most popular books having the least value because the print runs were the largest? Or does relative quality have any influence here?

Petroski: I don't pay much attention to the appreciation or resale value of my books, and so I haven't thought about it. I would expect that the Amazon and eBay phenomena have something to do with current prices. Many of my books are used in college courses, which means that they are bought by students. It is the rare student today who is a voracious reader, I think, and the rarer one who keeps a lot of books read in college. My expectation is that a lot of the books on the used-book market may have come from that source, but I have no way of really knowing.

BookThink: When I was an engineering student, I often felt as though I didn't fit. For the longest time, I believed that it had something to do with a deep need to do something more creative with my life than push a slide rule. You've played a significant role in debunking the myth that engineers lack imagination, creativity, etc., not to mention the opportunity to express it within engineering. Was engineering something that you saw a creative potential in from the outset, or did you grow into the realization?

Petroski: I had ambivalent feelings about engineering when I was a student and young engineer. Some of this may have reflected what I saw in society's general regard or disregard for engineering. Fortunately, my fellow students in engineering school were avid readers of everything, and our education was truly liberal. The more I read and became aware of the history of engineering, the more I became assured that engineering was full of creative potential and was an essential ingredient of civilization.

BookThink: I recall reading somewhere that you prefer not to talk about works in progress, but can you tell us if there might be another book about books sometime?

Petroski: I have been asked by Princeton University to deliver a set of three lectures (in the Vanuxem Lecture series) and to develop the lectures into a book. This is scheduled to be my next book, which I expect will be published perhaps in 2005.

Brief Biography

HENRY PETROSKI is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He has written on many aspects of engineering and technology, including design, success and failure, and the history of engineering and technology. His books on these subjects, which are intended for professional engineers and general readers alike, include: To Engineer Is Human, which was adapted for a BBC-television documentary; The Pencil; The Evolution of Useful Things; Design Paradigms (which was named by the Association of American Publishers as the best general engineering book published in 1994); Engineers of Dreams; Invention by Design; Remaking the World; The Book on the Bookshelf; and Paperboy, a memoir about growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and about what predisposed him to become an engineer. His most recent books are Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, which appeared in 2003, and Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, which will be published this September. The languages into which his books have been or are being translated include: Chinese, Finnish, German, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish.

In addition to having published many technical articles in refereed journals, Petroski has published numerous non-technical articles and essays in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Since 1991, he has been writing the engineering column in the bimonthly magazine American Scientist, and now also writes a bimonthly column on the engineering profession for ASEE Prism. He lectures regularly to both technical and general audiences, in the U.S. and abroad, and has been interviewed frequently on radio and television, including on NPR's All Things Considered and other public-radio shows, and on CNN's Talk Back Live and NBC's Today.

Before moving to Duke in 1980, Henry Petroski was on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin and on the staff of Argonne National Laboratory. He is a professional engineer licensed in Texas and a chartered engineer registered in Ireland. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, and a Fellow of the National Humanities Center. Among his other honors are the Ralph Coats Roe Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Civil Engineering History and Heritage Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from Clarkson University, Manhattan College, Trinity College (in Hartford, Conn.), and Valparaiso University, and distinguished engineering alumnus awards from Manhattan College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (whose History and Heritage Committee he chairs), a fellow of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, an honorary member of the Moles, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

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