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The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future Hardcover – Oct 21 2009

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“Historian and library director Darnton has written expansively and lucidly on the history of books and libraries. This collection of his influential essays from the past decade neatly encapsulates one significant part of his immense legacy and contribution to intellectual history. …Every one of Darnton’s essays reflects both his erudition and his good humor”

“The stimulating and thought-provoking essays in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future provide us with an excellent overview of where we have been and where we are likely to be headed.”

Shelf Awareness
“In this collection of well-informed essays, Robert Darnton, historian and director of the Harvard University Library, offers a decidedly open-minded perspective on some of the technological changes affecting the world of books and leads an insightful and learned discussion of topics that will appeal to more traditional bibliophiles.”

The New Republic
“Darnton’s volume is an informed and realistic guide to life in the first age of digital media. It argues convincingly that digitalization will create—is already creating—a new kind of enlightenment, if not a new Enlightenment…It seems entirely possible that Darnton will show scholars how we can make the digital world our servant, instead of accepting it as our master, and use it not to undermine but to complement the old powers of narrative and argument.”

“Darnton knows this territory as well as anyone and views the subject from a unique perspective…Darnton’s thoughtful and incisive essays on this important topic should be of interest to a wide range of book lovers.”

The Scotsman
“Darnton’s book ticks all the boxes. It looks nice. It smells nice. Its content is intelligent and forms a valuable primer to an increasingly important debate.”

Times Higher Education Supplement
“(an) important and highly readable book.”

“Darnton knows this territory as well as anyone and views the subject from a unique perspective…Darnton’s thoughtful and incisive essays on this important topic should be of interest to a wide range of book lovers.”

School Library Journal
The Case for Books breaks through the babble about books and offers concerned and curious librarians an intelligent and balanced response to the anti-Google claque while assuring readers that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated.”

The Nation
“A worthy guide to the tremors created by the Kindle and electronic reading”

About the Author

 A former professor of European History at Princeton University, Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. The founder of the Gutenberg-e program, he is the author of many books. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 18 reviews
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
A hymn of praise to both books and e-books Nov. 26 2009
By S. McGee - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Robert Darnton doesn't want to have to choose between books and e-books. That's at the core of this compelling collection of essays and articles, some of which have been published elsewhere and some of which are new. He wants knowledge to be available and accessible -- and loves the idea of how new technologies can accomplish that. On the other hand, he has a number of concerns about the unintended or unexpected consequences of a future that rests solely on digital content, such as the fact that Google and others pursuing projects to digitize books aren't doing so as a public service. As Darnton points out, they do not see libraries as "temples of learning", but rather buildings that contain "potential assets or what they call 'content', ready to mined" at a cost that will be a fraction of the expense that went into building those collections.

Some of the interesting topics touched on in this eclectic collection are the economics of publishing -- what is a scholar to do in a world where university presses can't count on selling 800 copies of a monograph? Can electronic publishing help meet the needs of the scholarly community to publish or perish -- and what is the price that would be paid? Darnton speaks out about the tendency of some librarians to value space and what that means for preservation; as well as the dangers associated with simply tossing out old newspapers after reproducing them on microfilm. (What if the microfilm is fuzzy? What if someone made margin notes that aren't reproduced; yet those margin notes inform later scholars or historians far more than the original content itself, with the passage of time?) There is an essay on bibliography and the importance of studying the history of the publication of a book or work (such as the various folios of Shakespeare).

My favorite of these essays, however, revolves around the way we read. Today, most of us wouldn't dream of reading in any other way from beginning to end (unless we cheat and try to find out how a mystery or romance novel ends because we can't stand the suspense). Darnton explores the way in which earlier generations of avid readers approached their books in a very different and far more utilitarian manner, using them as source material. That in turn begs the question of how differently we may approach content a few centuries from now. Darnton's collection is a plea of sorts to consider how we can keep what is valuable even as we open new doors to the transmission of our thoughts and ideas in print, whether on paper or cyber-paper.

I've rated this book 4.5 stars; rounded it down because some of the material overlaps and repeats (particularly the early chapters focusing on Google Book Search) and because Darnton doesn't go far enough in establishing a common theme linking and connecting these essays and articles. I'm familiar with many of the topics Darnton touches upon, and with the history of printing and publishing, and still found myself pausing to try and follow his train of thought and logic as I moved from one piece to the next. Each of those segments, however, will make fascinating reading for anyone interested in what the digital age means for conventional publishing, for scholarship and for readers, particularly since Darnton approaches his topics with clear eyes and a level head. This is no latter-day Luddite eager to bash technology, just someone who is trying to understand both its merits and the new set of risks it creates.

Recommended primarily to those interested in the general topic of publishing and cyber-publishing; I'd also suggest reading Darnton's excellent The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which explores the ways in which even before the Internet and e-books, eager readers found ways to circumvent attempts at censorship.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
The Case for Books Dec 1 2009
By barbara a. trumpinski (kitten) - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After reading Robert Darnton's book The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future I would recommend it for every bibliophile's "books to read" list. Darnton is not only the director of the Harvard library, he is also a historian who has devoted a great deal of time and energy to the history of books, writing, printing and reading. The book provides an overview of the subject without trying to do too much and without being dry and too technical. (I liked it so much I will admit to purchasing my own copy after I had read the first 6 chapters.)

As indicated by the title, The Case for Books is divided into three sections, as indicated by the title, but the Introduction has one of the most important points in the book, in my opinion. Darnton says:"A generation "born digital" is "always on," conversing everywhere on cell phones, tapping out instant messages, and networking in real or virtual realities. The younger people you pass on the street or sit next to on a bus are both simultaneously there and not there." Even so, he doesn't want to choose between print and ebooks. He analyzes the way the public interacts with books and printing (he is especially fond of the 17th century and spends a lot of time on the craft of bibliography and the way it is possible to distinguish between editions of Shakespeare) and then provides one of the best and certainly one of the clearest explanations of the Google book settlement that I have read. He is obviously a fan of Google Books and other projects that provide access to information, but he is also not overly dazzled and points out the danger of giving one commercial entity a monopoly or even fostering an oligopoly.

I particularly liked the chapters that dealt with reading. The description of the "commonplace book" of the 17th century was facinating, as I had not heard of this before. He points to the idea of the history of books as the history of communication in print. Ideas are transmitted through the written word and books have shaped the thought and behavior of mankind for the last 500 years. Books aren't going to disappear. They may change format, but that has happened many times in the past.

Darnton talked briefly about Open Access, and he has what is not quite a rant on the topic of destroying books to preserve them. This has happened in the past when the powers that be thought that microform was the wave of the future. It is not quite so bad with Google as scanning techniques have improved, but Google has sadly lacked quality control, praticularly in some of its earlier scanning projects. Cyberspace needs to be regulated and have standards, but the information needs to be available for students and general readers alike. Information is valuable but it is not knowledge. Knowledge is priceless. I was surprised that he didn't mention projects other than Google Books which are providing material for free, for example Project Gutenburg, the Hathi Library and the internet Archives, all of which are fine examples of providing public access to information.

He also talked about university press publishing and Gutenburg-e, which was a project to provide electronic copies of the top dissertations in history, combining the work of the Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association and financed by Carnegie Mellon. It was only moderately successful and has ended. University Presses are publishing less and less because the public won't buy the books that are published and libraries can no longer afford them. There are fewer and fewer venues for faculty to publish and that has negatively affected academia which is still tied to print publishing as a means of advancing.

Darnton obviously loves his subject and his profession. I think bibliophiles, librarians and others who are interested in the whys and wherefores of books that are either digital or paper who read A Case for Books will be satisfied.
42 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Very disappointing Jan. 19 2010
By Comstock - Published on
Format: Hardcover
There is no case for this book, which is deceptively marketed and disappointing.

The title indicates that Robert Darnton, an eminent historian and scholar, will mount an argument in favor of books. Instead, what follows is a series of his old articles, dating back to the early 1980s, with nothing seriously unifying the group.

A few of these old articles, laid out as chapters, are somewhat interesting. However, others are shameful, including one that reproduces a grant proposal he made in 1997, followed by a progress report from 2002. This is just lazy and insulting to readers.

Nowhere on the outer cover does it indicate that this is a collection of previously published essays; there's just a passing mention in the back flap. Seemingly, they wanted this to look like a book that it is not.

I do admire Darnton as a scholar, but I have lost admiration for him after this. For he, who so admires books, to release this is neither a tribute to the medium, nor to his readers.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Not quite what it seems May 16 2011
By hrladyship - Published on
Format: Paperback
Darnton's book is not quite what it seems. The title of The Case for Books seems to indicate that the contents would be details on the importance of books as they currently exist. In this age of the digitization of nearly everything that isn't nailed down, a lot of bibliophiles feel that their treasures are being attacked and may disappear in the near future. It is these current conditions that lead the reader to believe they know what arguments Darnton will be trying to prove once the cover is turned back.

As it turns out, only the new "chapter" on Google fits most expectations. Darnton makes a case both for and against digitization of books, but mostly he comes out against. One reason is the potential for loss of control of the books by both authors and publishers that could be a result of this and other projects. Another reason is having the control of much of the written word in the hands of one entity. This does not bode well for anyone in the business - including readers. Whether this is Google's intent, the project does tend to bring out the paranoia in those who believe in access to all books by all people.

The rest of the book is a re-printing of several earlier essays by Darnton, something that is not mentioned specifically on the book covers. Some of these are interesting, some are not. The chapter on the grant proposal would be useful only for someone looking for a sample of such, and does not make interesting reading. The same could be said for the chapter "The Importance of Being Bibliographical.

Now, the chapter on commonplace books was delightful, especially since this was a term I had never heard. I am familiar with marginalia (the practice of writing comments in the margins of books). Although I'd never heard the term commonplace books, copying down passages from books as I read them is a long-time part of my reading habits. It was also interesting to learn the differences in how we read today (starting at the beginning and reading straight through) vs. the way our ancestors read (reading various parts out of order). That this difference may be due in part to the popularization of novels is an interesting idea.

Much of this book was interesting to read, but it didn't quite live up to the promise of its title. Readers interested in problems we face in the publishing world today might find Digital Barbarians of interest. It deals with copyright issues that have been created in a world where so much information is easily available, and some don't believe in ownership rights of authors and publishers.
Marian the Librarian Meets the New Digital Future Dec 12 2009
By Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are several heroes in this book, but only one villain. The villain is, of course, Google, with its plan to digitize millions of books from research libraries and to make them available on the web to the public, for a profit. Google was challenged in court by a group of authors and publishers for alleged breach of copyright. For Robert Darnton, who expressed his views in numerous articles published by the NYRB and other journals, market forces cannot be trusted to operate for the public good. Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, he sees a great missed opportunity: "we could have created a National Digital Library, the twenty-first century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria." Instead, "we are allowing a question of public policy--the control of access to information--to be determined by private lawsuit."

Turning to the heroes of the book, the first character we meet is a fictitious one, who appears at various junctures in the text. Marian the Librarian, as she is called, answers queries about her job by explaining that librarianship "is all about money and power". She lives in a dangerous world of CIA plots to take all newspapers out of libraries, of books baking in chemical solutions to prevent their pages from turning into crumbs, and of civil lawsuits such as the Google Book Search case brought to the district court for the Southern District of New York.

The case against Google's potential abuse of monopoly power is especially strong because, as people familiar with scientific publishing certainly know, it has happened before. Commercial publishers discovered they could ratchet up the subscription price of professional journals without causing cancellations, because once a university library subscribed, the students and the professors came to expect an uninterrupted flow of issues. This has resulted in the skyrocketing cost of serials, with the Journal of Comparative Neurology claiming the hefty price of $25,910 for a year's subscription. As a consequence, libraries that used to spend 50 percent of their acquisitions budget on monographes now spend 25 percent or less. University presses, which depend on sales to libraries, cannot cover their costs by publishing monographs. And young scholars who depend on publishing to advance their careers are now in danger of perishing.

For the author, lending his voice to Marian the Librarian, "To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere."

The second hero of the book is Robert Darnton himself as a professional historian who made pioneering contributions to the history of books. Let's call him Bob the Historian. As he defines his field of inquiry, the purpose of the history of books "is to understand how ideas were transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thoughts and behavior of mankind during the last five hundred years". Initially, the problems took the form of concrete questions in unrelated branches of scholarship: What were Shakespeare's original texts? What caused the French Revolution? What is the connection between culture and social stratification? By asking new questions, using new methods and tapping new sources, the history of books turned into an exciting and thriving discipline, akin in its ambition and span to the history of science or the sociology of knowledge.

Bob the Historian believes libraries should preserve as much printed material and other media as possible. He thinks that "future scholars may learn a lot from studying our harlequin novels or computer manuals or telephone books." As his own research has shown, "almanacs and chapbooks were the most popular kind of printed matter in early modern Europe--so popular, in fact, that libraries did not deign to collect them." Likewise, commonplace books where people copied valuable quotes and remarks are sites to be mined for information about how people thought in a culture based on different assumptions from our own.

Bob the Historian's passion fort the archive goes beyond the printed material. He notes that we have lost 80 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of all films made before World War II. And he refers to ongoing projects at Harvard to archive email exchanges and web content for future generations to study. His plea for conservation is fueled by his belief in the social role of the historian: "Any attempt to see into the future while struggling with problems of the present should be informed by studying the past". Although the study of history does not afford lessons that can be directly applied to present circumstances, immersions into the past can provide a useful perspective on current and future events.

The last hero of the book is the same author in a different capacity: as a lover of books, bewitched by their texture and smell. Robbie Bookworm, if we dare call him so, recalls with emotion his first visit as a freshman to the rare books library at Harvard and his discovery of marginalia annotations of Emerson by Melville. Digitized images on a computer screen will always fail to capture crucial aspects of a book. "When I read an old book, I hold its pages up to the light and often find among the fibers of the paper little circles made by drops from the hand of the vatman as he made the sheet--or bits of shirts and petticoats that failed to be grounded up adequately during the preparation of the pulp." And to escape the vagaries of the present, there is always the temptation "to retire to a rare-book room and count watermarks".