The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future
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Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2010
“A useful text with which to muse on this subject is Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs, 2009). In it, the onetime newspaper reporter, distinguished scholar of the Enlightenment and the history of the book, and director of Harvard's libraries, swings between explanations and concerns about Google Book Search, and how the situation with books today looks in the perspective of history. Many of his observations give pause.”
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 Guttenberg-e program, he is the author of many books. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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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.
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.
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.
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.