Book Review

"The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future" by Robert Darnton

John Bales
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Jan/Feb 2012

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." This quote and ones similar to it have been attributed to Mark Twain, but may just as well be a quote from book publishers and libraries today. That is, at least, the contention of Robert Darnton in his book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. Darnton, university professor and director of the library at Harvard University, argues for the enduring value of print books, but he is no mere librarian singing to the choir of book lovers. He has spent much of his academic career as a groundbreaking historian of eighteenth-century France and specifically of book publishing during that period. His work as a historian also included a stint as president of the American Historical Association, and he contributed to the launching of two publishing projects. His academic career has been varied and fruitful, and it enables him to come to his subject with a unique perspective.

In The Case for Books, Darnton offers a collection of previously published essays, arranged in three sections, beginning with a section on the future of books. It is in this first section that we discover the main question for readers' consideration, the one nearly every book lover and librarian is asking: What is the future of the printed book? Darnton tells us that when he began working at Harvard he was immediately thrust into the center of the debate, namely, Google's desire to digitize millions of books. Some see Google's pursuit as an apocalyptic end to all print books. Others see Google's efforts as the dawn of a new age of information resource.

Darnton introduces Google's project, the Google Book Search, by explaining with relative simplicity the complicated subject of the lawsuit brought against Google by publishers and authors and its ongoing settlement. Having placed the digitization discussion within its current legal context, Darnton offers a via media approach to the future of bound books. They are not going away, at least not any time soon. His proof? Darnton says that we should review the history of communication paradigm shifts. (Throughout Darnton employs a historical method: look into the past in order to make sense of the present and to consider the future.) "Any attempt to see into the future while struggling with problems in the present should be informed, I believe, by studying the past" (xii). One new medium of communication never completely replaces another. "Television did not destroy the radio," Darnton reminds us. The codex has been around a long time, and there are indications that it will remain for some time as well. Case in point, bound book sales are at all time highs.

But Darnton is no enemy of the digital world either. He is not entrenched in a "print books only" mentality. He is a self-described "Google enthusiast." He writes, "Although I worry about its monopolistic tendencies, I believe Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized" (33). Google's efforts will be far-reaching and maybe overreaching, but Darnton is willing to accept the risks associated with such a massive project, because he believes there are enough safeguards in place to protect against the threat of a Google Book Search monopoly.

There are other fascinating topics related to the books Darnton surveys. Chapter 8, "A Paean to Paper," is a review essay of Nicholson Baker's Double Fold. Baker argues that within the past two decades "libraries have purged their shelves of newspapers…because they are driven by a misguided obsession about saving space" (110). Many readers may not be aware of this activity, and Darnton provides a helpful summary to Baker's "jeremiad." While he questions some of Baker's analysis, Darnton tends to agree with Baker's conclusions. The essay is another argument for the preservation of not only bound books but newspapers as well, since both provide unique windows into history.

Chapter 9, "The Importance of Being Bibliographical," is a fine example of the kind of historical analysis that Darnton employs in order to grapple with the perplexing questions of today. He reviews some of the most important bibliographic work in the last century conducted on select works of Shakespeare in order to demonstrate the complex world of book printing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’the scholarship of Shakespearean bibliographers from the past century "have transformed our knowledge of how the first printed books were published" (148). Because of their work, Darnton reminds Google's current users that a digital edition of an early or first edition book on the Google Book Search may be only one of many variant editions that were published, and cautions users against making rash textual conclusions based upon one electronic edition. Darnton is demonstrating that the Google Book Search has its limitations and therefore bound books are necessary. Chapter 10 is an outstanding essay on commonplace books; it makes the same case and is worth a read.

The prospective reader should not expect this book to have a narrative flow. The "future, present, and past" structure arbitrarily organizes these previously published essays into a book format and does not necessarily contribute to a unifying, logical argument. One consequence of publishing previous essays is that Darnton covers similar ground in a couple of essays (the introductory essay "Google and the New Digital Future" and the first two chapters include some repetitive information about Google's project and objectives). Nevertheless, Darnton accomplishes his purpose of offering "an unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present, and future" (vii). For those of us who are confronted on a regular basis with exaggerated claims that books and libraries are dying and that book lovers must "re-imagine" a brave new world without printed books, Darnton offers sane, sober counsel. Books may not command the same authority as in the past, but they remain dominant players and will very likely never go away.

Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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