Book Review – The Case for Books, by Robert Darnton

Case for BooksA few weeks ago, I was involved in an extensive Twitter chat with several authors and editors, and discovered that a great many of them were all for taking every book digital and doing away with physical books altogether.

I have a feeling that Robert Darnton would say to these people, “How admirably enthusiastic you are! But how very naïve.”

This is a man with one foot in each world, the physical and the digital. He founded the Gutenberg-e program that ran from 2000 to 2006, an attempt to turn selected PhD dissertations into digital books with multiple layers. He has aspirations to write his own multi-layered digital history ebook. And as Director of the Harvard University Library, he’s been instrumental in creating the program to digitize Harvard’s vast scholarly collections and make them accessible to everyone, rather than limit their availability just to that university’s closed community.

So the guy is no Luddite. He likes ebooks. Yet in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (**), he argues that we should neither be in such a rush to eliminate physical paper books, nor should bookish people look down their noses at digitized books and e-readers. We are not confronted with an either-or situation, says Darnton, despite what people on both sides of the divide believe.

Darnton, a scholar as well as library director, advances arguments that will make each side both smile and weep. He was probably farther ahead in the late 1990s, with his ideas on where ebooks should go, than most people who are pushing ebooks so strongly today. Yet at the same time, he describes just how much published material there really is, and will be in the future, so that the complete digitization of all books and printed matter simply will never happen. He also argues that modern libraries, rather than doing away with physical books and going entirely digital, should stock even more books than ever before.

Darnton’s primary concern, through each essay in this book, is the wider public good. In this regard, while he admires Google’s goal of digitizing all books and making them accessible to everyone, he believes this should be done by a public non-profit consortium of libraries rather than a private corporation. The recent class action settlement with Google essentially gives it a monopoly, and while the current owners of the company appear to have only benevolent motives for what they’re doing, that guarantees nothing about what future owners will choose. In the end, the company’s main goal is not the public good, but the greatest monetary value for its own shareholders. So while Darnton loves the idea of everyone in the world having access to all books, he is convinced that handing ultimate ownership of every book ever published to Google is a very bad way of achieving this.

The Case for Books is a collection of essays about ebooks and the value of physical books, published by Darnton over the last decade. The essays are grouped into a Future, Present, and Past configuration, looking at where we might be going, where we are now, and what the previous history of books has been. It’s the last section that might give readers a bit of difficulty, depending on who Darnton’s audience is supposed to be. Those who aren’t used to scholarly analysis may find the final essay (“What is the History of Books?”) rather hard slogging, fascinating though it is. It’s a great demonstration of how books make history rather than just describe it, but as the end of this book, it concludes things rather quietly.

Indeed, the entire “Past” section is academic enough that it may bring some readers down with a bit of a thud, after the excitement and, occasionally, strong emotions of the first two sections. Perhaps it might have been better to arrange them Present-Past-Future, or perhaps to take the first essay (“Google and the Future of Books”) and make it the last one instead, to end this volume on a more powerful note.

However, on the whole, Darnton makes a very strong case for the crucial importance of physical books continuing to exist and be promoted alongside ebooks. Some of his views will make people on both sides gnash their teeth, but his suggested solutions may be the only way the two views can ever be reconciled, and books of any type be preserved.

(**Note: The Case for Books is published by PublicAffairs, whose goal is to publish “good books about things that matter.” My copy was an advanced reading copy, and there may be changes when the final version is published on October 27, 2009.)

(**Further Note: for Darnton’s own summary of his thoughts about the future of the book, you may be interested in an article he published on September 14, 2009, in Publishers Weekly: On the Ropes? Robert Darnton’s Case for Books.)


    1. StephanieD says:

      I am not an absolutist when it comes to e-books. I see their virtues and drawbacks. For me, several things need to happen for me to get into them: the prices need to be lowered or I need to own the books outright, more books available, and the e-reader technology needs to become better. My vision of an ideal future is one in which both physical books and e-books are readily available.

      • Phyl says:

        I’d completely agree with that. In fact, I think it’s guaranteed, now that I’ve investigated more, that physical books will always be there. I think libraries that eliminate physical books altogether — like that college university that recently did so — are insane. Not to mention irresponsible. Not to mention outright destructive.

        But I agree that there is also a very important place for ebooks. So a path down the middle between the two either/or sides is probably the most rational one.

    2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

      This post was mentioned on Twitter by kashicat: My review of “The Case for Books” by Robert Darnton, for @NetGalley (thanks!) #NGpick

    3. […] likely to be print books in the foreseeable future. (That’s what head Harvard librarian, Robert Darnton, certainly believes, as I discuss in a review of his book.) So it’s probably a good idea to […]

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