Review: The Case for Books

Book by Robert Darnton

The Case for Books

If you are going to write a book on books, you had better know something about them. The author of The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, Robert Darnton, knows books, their forms, their contents, their history, and even their abuses. Darnton is the director of the Harvard University Library system (Ivy League College, check), a former professor of European history at Princeton (Ivy League College #2, check), and the author of numerous books of his own. In his role at Harvard, he helped guide the “Google Books Project,” which involved the search giant scanning the holdings at Harvard’s libraries.

As one of the principles in the digitizing of written works, you might think that Darnton would be a gung-ho proponent of electronic books. Well, he is. But he is also deeply in love with traditional paper books, and scrolls, and words chiseled into stone, and any other format that gets the written word into the hands of ordinary people. Each of the book’s eleven chapters is a distinct essay, which were then bound together into codex form, one of the author’s favorite formats. Some of the essays provide a fascinating look at the future of the book. Some of the other chapters, not so interesting. He does tend to drone on and on about the high cost of scholarly journals. But since he writes the checks at the Harvard Library, he can be excused for getting a little miffed.

Many people bemoan the rise of the e-book and its negative impact on the printed book world. Darnton will have none of it. In his mind, bookish content must be made available to as many people as possible, and at an affordable price; the form is irrelevant. He identifies “four fundamental changes in information technology since humans learned to speak”: (1) the introduction of writing around 4000BC, (2) the shift from the scroll to the codex in the third century AD, (3) the introduction of movable type, and (4) the introduction of ARPANET (now the Internet) in 1969. Each change in communication format brought about societal changes. Darnton claims that each new form did not mean a displacement of the earlier form, and that we should not fear the electronic age. I did notice that his book is not available in scroll form.

Most enjoyable was the chapter on “The Mysteries of Reading” (Chapter 10) and its discussion of Enlightenment-era “commonplace books,” notebooks that readers would use to jot down memorable passages. In this, Darnton exclaims one of his most memorable points: reading is writing.

Commonplacing made them into authors. It forced them to write their own books; and by doing so they developed a still sharper sense of themselves as autonomous individuals.

While much of the content is scholarly and, therefore, boring, Darnton clearly enjoys the book thing. And after reading his overview of its importance in the past, present, and future, you will, too.

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