The Case for Books

2009 was the year of The Death of the Book — in fear if not in fact. The rise of e-readers, the increasingly bleak fortunes of print news and periodicals of all kinds, and the implacable tide of mobile apps and digital devices intimately sprung within our psyches; the lumbering legal proceedings around Google Books finally lurching towards denouement — all these would seem to crowd the humble book off the table. And yet presses around the world had churned out roughly a million physical books by the close of the year. Books in toto have seemed to flourish, while the form of The Book — the amalgamated modern codex, a barcoded commodity blessed with the holy light of the Gospels and anointed by Saint Johannes of Mainz — faces an existential threat unlike any known since ravening mobs chased Hypatia through the streets of Alexandria.

Among the most measured and thoughtful voices in the fray has been that of Robert Darnton, a book historian whose analytic gifts are exceeded only by the grace of his prose. A Rhodes scholar, a MacArthur Fellow, and a Chevalier of the French Légion d’Honneur, Darnton made his reputation by brilliant reconstructions of the esoteric, forgotten world of eighteenth-century books — a world populated not only by authors and philosophes, but by compositors, pressmen, papermakers, booksellers, and smugglers. This is history not only from the bottom up, but “from above, from margins on the side, from every possible angle,” as Darnton recently has written.

For the last three years, Darnton has served as head of the Harvard University Library (where I worked as an editor for eight marvelous years before Darnton’s tenure, and about which I have written extensively). When he arrived at Harvard in 2007, the university was in the midst of ramping up its participation in the highly controversial Google Books Project, and Darnton began by making a thorough, and skeptical, reassessment of the project’s grand possibilities and pitfalls. He has since become one of the project’s staunchest and most nuanced critics. Largely in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Darnton has embraced the extraordinary promise of a comprehensive, freely-accessible digital library while raising important questions about the dangers of leaving that work in the hands of a private corporation as monopolistic in its sheer range and power as Google.

It’s unfortunate, then, that The Case for Books so thoroughly fails to fulfill the mandate of its title. Reprising the NYRB essays on Google with older pieces on books and the culture of letters, the volume seems more a scrapbook than the “unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present, and future” that Darnton promises in his introduction. As periodical literature, these essays were timely salvos in the ongoing public discourse on the nature of reading and publishing. But their age already shows. Although the essays collected here offer insights, anecdotes, and lovely observations on the rewards (and the demands) of reading, there are also included pieces that seem little more than superannuated memoranda.

The first of three sections, subtitled “Future,” consists of Darnton’s most recent NYRB pieces, essays on academic open-access publishing and Google Books. But these are already outdated, as they tackle topics in the midst of weekly and even daily change. The middle section of the book, entitled “Present,” isn’t about the present at all — or to be more precise, it’s about the present circa 1999. Here, Darnton shares program proposals and administrative reports from the last century with no more context than a short italicized headnote can provide. We need more than brief introductory paragraphs to make these documents speak with force today: they call for annotations, footnotes, lengthier introductions and epilogues. Lacking the necessary context, such tentative and clotted concepts as “the so-called Information Age”and “so-called hyperlinks,” which rang with arch candor ten years ago, are mere anachronisms today. Essays from the nineties deprecating the discomfort of reading on screens are hopelessly irrelevant in the time of e-Ink displays; putting the term “e-book” in scare quotes made more sense in the midst of a breaking Internet bubble than it does in the time of Kindle and Nook. It tests one’s patience to work through an essay that concludes by reminding us that “the world of learning is changing so rapidly that no one can predict what it will look like ten years from now” — only to discover by glancing in the front matter that it was published ten years ago!

But the case is made stronger in the third section, on the “Past.” This is Darnton’s territory, an exploration of the history of books and reading through four essays that offer models for engaging letters in our own rapidly changing times. In “The Mysteries of Reading,” Darnton observes that early modern readers read “segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover.” Reading, we’re reminded, is a practice of linking and sharing as much as lengthy solitary rapture and contemplation — a congeries of engagements deeply native to life online. But upon reflection this proves a curious exemplar — for as Darnton himself allows, it shows how reading is a magisterium and way of life that can survive and even flourish in myriad ways, only some of which look like the books we know and love.

Darnton’s book is most useful not as a text, but as an object and an occasion. It makes a handy peg for keynote addresses and discussion panels; it’s a reason to invite Darnton to speak with his customary grace and precision on talk shows and at conferences. Like a medieval Book of Hours, it’s an aide-memoire, a talisman, a ritual invocation ringing the changes on transformations in technology, knowledge, and consciousness. But a case for books it is not.