Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf explains why shelving books vertically with their spine pointing outward was much less common in the olden days:
The spines of early books had been modest features indeed compared to the front and back covers. […] In many cases, the metal and jewel treatments of the front were nailed or otherwise fastened directly over leather or other binding material, emphasizing the plainness and subservient position of the spine. There was little that could be done otherwise, for the spine was in effect the hinge of the book, something that had to bend and flex if the book were to open properly, and so it was not suitable for heavy ornamentation. Indeed, the spine was to the cover as the downstairs would be to the upstairs in a Victorian mansion. (121)
Petroski illustrates his point with a series of woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. They culminate in Saint Jerome in his Study (1514), one of Dürer’s four master cuts.
We see Saint Jerome poring over his translation of the Bible into vulgar Latin (the Vulgate). Conspicuously missing from the book pile next to the sleeping dog is a vertical spine. Books are lying either on their face or are propped against the wall, spine facing upwards. Some seventy years after Dürer, the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli decided to feature vertical shelving in a picture showing his book wheel, one of the most famous contraptions in book gadget history:
The picture dates back to 1588; notice the shelf in the background. According to Petroski, the way the books are shelved — spine out — was a rare sight at the time. We may attest their appearance to Ramelli’s flair for innovative design, but Petroski points out that Ramelli had been an engineer at the French court and might have come across spine-shelving there, the French being pioneers in that respect. Only toward the end of the 16th century, as books became more and more numerous, did book collectors and librarians start spine-shelving and spine-labelling in earnest. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of leather-bindings encouraged spine-decoration. By the 17th century, the spine had conquered the bookshelf.
As far as contemplating a “book thing” such as a shelf is concerned: may the wise men sneer! Yes, perhaps we should be reading our books instead of obsessing over their appearance, or their history, or their shelving. But I believe that the physical realm — a book touched, felt, shelved — is an essential part of the reading experience and too often neglected in its study. Let the wise men therefore be engrossed in their tomes. In the meantime, I shall be happy checking out some delicious book gadgets.
Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.