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

Eight stars

Before I commence this review, I’d like it to be clear that I enjoyed this piece in its audio format and tracked progress using the electronic book version. With the content of this book, it is interesting to highlight this fact, for what it’s worth.

Robert Darnton undertakes an interesting argument in this series of essays, at a time when libraries are tightening their belts and digital production of books has become the norm. Darnton seeks to explore books and their publication throughout three generic time periods: future, present, and past (in that order). These thought-provoking pieces do weigh themselves down in academic analysis, but make some excellent points throughout this journey, exploring the greatest means of organised thought, the collection of writings into a single bound (or gathered) volume. While I originally thought this book would be the perfect ‘test review’ for anyone wishing to join Goodreads—what better way to test a person’s prowess about the world of books than to explore this tome all about their historical importance—I have come to see that Darnton’s passion may carve out an island that many may not prefer to visit or turn towards. That said, it is an excellent collection of thoughts in a succinct form.

As one of our strongest connections to the past, Darnton opens his collection by looking ahead to the future of books. Whereas libraries have made books somewhat readily accessible for hundreds of years, the sheer number of published works makes it impossible to find or ascertain specific documents. While this argument could be made of the curious fiction or non-fiction reader, Darnton’s lens of discussion is firmly with the classics and academic works, specifically research materials. Darnton makes some strong arguments about free sharing of scholarly results and outcomes across fields and between academic institutions, as well as Google’s push to digitise a handful of the rare books found on the shelves of many large universities. He does, however, make some interesting arguments about the true ‘pick and choose’ nature of digital creations and how those who rely solely on them can miss out on many interesting pieces that speak to the pulse of the time, citing pre-revolutionary fiction in France. Might the future of books be put through a filter of whatever Google or publishers wish to offer in a digital format, thereby leaving the printed book to wither away? Darnton also speaks of the future of books and the lack of ‘sight, sound, and smell’, something that some find comforting when it comes to reading, though there are others who push more for the text and content, not all that concerned about the aesthetics of the reading experience. While this piece was penned in the early years (months?) of ebook publishing, Darnton sees a great future in the field, mordernising the act of reading and the simplicity of retrieving books across the World Wide Web. For Darnton, the future of books can be promising, but surely full of questions.

Books at present (read: 2009 or so) are in a significantly precarious position. Looking at their development and transformation over time, books are still relevant. Libraries have not turned to burning the paper and sought to fill shelves with other things, nor are rare book rooms, for fear of a bad pun, a rarity. Books still exist because people have things that they want to say and publishers have a market to sell them. Again, through an academic lens, Darnton explores how some university presses that could once guarantee sales of 500-1000 books to cover all costs and scratch the itch in the specific niche are now barely able to break even. The cost of books has become lucrative for some and the justification to purchase them is surely a great factor. Taking my own lens here, I must ask myself, ‘do I really want that book for my own, or will I shelve it afterwards and likely not return for many years?’. While some are purists and mock the idea of empty bookshelves, I think the economic aspect of book acquisition is surely part of the drive to move away from the weighted item that binds paper together. Space and convenience are surely strong factors in this regard, as people no longer have personal libraries to dedicate to their collections. In reading this section, I came to see the warring factions that are emerging, purists versus convenience readers, both of whom have members who hold strong and grounded beliefs, though there are others whose ignorance runs more freely than ink on a wet page (and I have met some in recent years). The present place of books is surely uncertain, though Darnton makes a strong case that books are essential and cannot be entirely “Fahrenheit 451’ed”.

Books represent a documented pathway to where we have come as humans. Early thought went from public discourse into a bound version that people could collect and make reference to when it suited them. Surely, the printed text and creation of the formal book helped bring societies together and served to represent them to future generations. In this portion of the book, Darnton looks not only at how society was shaped by the book, but how the process of publishing books shaped their interpretation in comparison to the original text. Darnton uses some Shakespeare in his tome to explore what the earliest known publications of The Bard’s work presented and how, in a mere 10-20 years, a publisher might have ‘reworked’ the wording to clarify meanings or added some of his own frilly pieces to the prose, thereby altering it. Without the original, societies and generations must rely on the printed text to be as gospel as it came. The past cannot always be brought into the present, as books deteriorate rapidly if not stored properly, thereby destroying the connection to the past that Darnton feels is so essential to understanding past societies. Treaties and analyses of these writings helped to shape so much and the past is full of such strong arguments, from countries all over the world, which helped to influence major movements at different points in time. To look back is to learn, just as much as forging ahead can take a person to new levels of understanding.

While the topic under discussion can be thoroughly intriguing, Darnton’s academic position fuels this book’s perspective. I am one who enjoys digesting such arguments to better understand the world around me, but there will be many who might shy away from this, seeking more to grasp and understand of whether Bryce Courtenay’s massive novels are better read in book or digital form. Alas, the arguments cannot always translate from the academic ivory tower to mainstream with ease, though some of the points can be used, embedded deeply in scholarly discussions as they might be. Still, Darnton’s delivery is sound and his arguments are clear, if perhaps sometimes long winded. I would love to see if a newer edition with updated commentary might be available, as even now, nine years after publication, some of the ideas posited have collected dust and some discussions about this ‘new’ ebook format are so completely ensconced in the psyche of the reader that they no longer think it an innovative thing. As I look back at this, I think of my son and the world he is entering as a new reader. He has made the leap from paper to digital, though still loves that flipping feeling between his fingers. When speaking of books and the monumental growth that’s taken place, it is no longer Gutenberg that is the great accomplishment, but one of many in this ever-changing world of collective thought presentation.

Kudos, Mr. Darnton, for you have inspired me to explore the larger arguments in favour and against physical books. I can see how I might open a can of worms on Goodreads, which is never a bad thing.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: