Sunday, November 01, 2009

Book Review: "The Case for Books"

Robert Darnton's The Case for Books (PublicAffairs, 2009) collects eleven of the author's essays, reviews, and talks relating to the history of the book and book culture, organized in three sections "running backward from speculations about the world of books that will exist in five or ten years to polemics about issues in the here-and-now and reflections on older information ages with communication systems of their own" (p. xii). In the introduction Darnton calls the collection "an unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present, and future," but notes that his goal is to "explore the possibilities of aligning [electronic modes of communication] with the power that Johannes Gutenberg unleashed more than five centuries ago." He offers a brief synopsis of his own career as a reporter, professor, historian, author, and now the head of the Harvard University Libraries system - through all of which he has been engaged with books and their cultural importance.

I have already reviewed / responded at some length to the first two of these essays, which appeared in the New York Review of Books on 12 February 2009 ("The Library and the New Age") and 12 June 2008 ("Google & the Future of Books"). In reading over the comments I made then, I find that my thinking remains the same, so I will simply point to my posts of 24 February 2009 and 4 June 2008. In the third piece included here, a speech delivered at the Frankfort Book Fair on 17 October 2009, Darnton outlines what he sees as the future of research libraries, including how whatever becomes of the Google Books Settlement will shape that future (even presuming it is approved in some form, he suggests, libraries should and must play a key role in future digitization projects). Further, he suggests, the world's major research libraries should continue pushing for open access, should explore collaboration with partner institutions, and should concentrate on special collections with an eye toward digitizing those materials and making them available to the world as circumstances permit.

The fourth chapter, "Lost and Found in Cyberspace," appeared as a 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education essay; in it Darnton describes the ideal electronic book, one with "many layers arranged in the shape of a pyramid," with supplementary essays and digitized materials complementing the narrative structure. Readers, he suggests, should "find their own paths through [the subject], reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic links may lead" (p. 61-2). I've heard Darnton discuss this vision before, and I think if he could make it work it would be fabulous - here's hoping!

In the fifth and sixth pieces included here, Darnton describes his involvement with the American Historical Association's (and Columbia University Press') Gutenberg-e project, an early effort to present scholarly monographs in an electronic format. This is quite a fascinating look inside the project as it was envisioned and how it worked in "real life." Next Darnton offers a short essay he published in the Harvard Crimson in February 2008, just before the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences agreed to support an open-access policy for faculty publications.

Three of the final four chapters are NYRB review essays, in which Darnton examines Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, the bibliographic works of Don McKenzie, and Kevin Sharpe's Reading Revolutions. The first is a fair critique of a book which was anything but to the subjects and people it covered; Darnton acknowledges some of Baker's good points while rightly deploring the rhetorical tactics and demagoguery used by Baker to lob his grenades. The ninth chapter, covering McKenzie's works, focuses on the importance of bibliography to the study of book history, and the review of Sharpe's work touches on the question of just what histories of reading can tell us (given their often very personal nature) can contribute to the field.

Finally, Darnton provides his seminal essay in the book history field, the 1982 piece "What Is the History of Books?" This call to arms, which I've read and attempted to incorporate into much of my own work, lays out the usefulness of a book history approach, and offers a model of the communication process (diagram on p. 182) as a sort of circuit. Although it's easy to get sucked into esoteric examinations of the minutia of books, he suggests, we must at least try to see the forest for the trees: "Neither history nor literature nor economics nor sociology nor bibliography can do justice to all aspects of the life of a book. By its very nature, therefore, the history of books must be international in scale and interdisciplinary in method. But it need not lack conceptual coherence, because books belong to circuits of communication that operate in consistent patterns, however complex they may be. By unearthing those circuits, historians can show that books do not merely recount history; they make it" (p. 206).

Darnton is one of the most talented, most important, and most useful writers on books and book history on today's stage. His enthusiasm for books of all forms, including a potential future form as a many-layered electronic ur-text, is infectious, making this collection a must-read for bibliophiles and anyone interested in the past, present, or future of books, libraries, and the republic of letters.