The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future [NOOK Book]


The era of the printed book is at a crossroad. E-readers are flooding the market, books are available to read on cell phones, and companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple are competing to command near monopolistic positions as sellers and dispensers of digital information. Already, more books have been scanned and digitized than were housed in the great library in Alexandria. Is the printed book resilient enough to survive the digital revolution, or will it become obsolete? In this lasting collection of ...
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The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

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The era of the printed book is at a crossroad. E-readers are flooding the market, books are available to read on cell phones, and companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple are competing to command near monopolistic positions as sellers and dispensers of digital information. Already, more books have been scanned and digitized than were housed in the great library in Alexandria. Is the printed book resilient enough to survive the digital revolution, or will it become obsolete? In this lasting collection of essays, Robert Darnton—an intellectual pioneer in the field of this history of the book—lends unique authority to the life, role, and legacy of the book in society.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Is the age of the printed book coming to an end? If history is any guide, notes Harvard University Library director Darnton, not any time soon. In this collection of previously published essays, an “unashamed apology for the printed word,” Darnton, an eloquent writer and one of the world's foremost historians of the book, offers a fascinating history of our literary past and a penetrating look at the disruptive forces shaping the future of publishing. Almost no topic is untouched, from the role of libraries to metadata, the print traditions of Europe, piracy old and new, Darnton's own forays into digital initiatives and the efficacy—even the beauty—of our changing literary landscape over centuries of development. This book clearly has a main character, however—Google. The search giant appears often. While the individual essays are brief, in sum, the book offers a deep dive into the evolution of the written and published word. Darnton offers little cover from the winds of change, but for book lovers and publishing professionals he offers the comfort that comes from understanding the past, and hope, as he places the Internet among a litany of disruptive innovations the book has survived. (Oct. 27)
Library Journal
Darnton (director, Harvard Univ. Lib.) gathers more than a decade's worth of his published work to address the essential issues surrounding the future of the book, from the genesis of ebooks and the opportunities of electronic text to early practices of book production and circulation and the nuances of reading. Darnton comes across most forcefully when he does more than just reintroduce the debate over the dangers and promises of a global digital library and instead shares instructive insights into the nature of information itself and the relationship of text to the reader. Core is his treatment of the Google Library Project and the settlement's importance. Darnton's personal opinion: digitize and democratize. VERDICT These essays bring balance and a refreshing perspective to the nervous predictions over the future of print. Highly recommended for anyone with an investment in new media, libraries, literacy, and publishing.—Katharine A. Webb, Ohio State Univ. Libs., Columbus
Kirkus Reviews
Harvard University Library director Darnton (George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century, 2003, etc.) offers measured essays on books, libraries and publishing. In pieces published in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, Darnton focuses on the status of scholarly publishing and librarianship. Quoting a colleague who says that the latter is, perhaps surprisingly, tightly bound up in the world of money and power, the author notes that, for all the recent woes of the economy, a million new books are published each year around the world-books that have somehow to be put into the hands of readers. In that connection, Darnton, an eminent student of the Enlightenment and a good citizen of what that era called the Republic of Letters, considers the role of Google and its plan to scan the contents of the world's great libraries into digital form. On the face, he writes, making such a wealth of knowledge available to readers would appear to be a public good, and there are many reasons why a bibliophile and scholar should applaud such an enterprise. Yet, he adds, after evenhanded consideration of those pluses, "The more I learned about Google, the more it appeared to be a monopoly intent on conquering markets rather than a natural ally of libraries, whose sole purpose is to preserve and diffuse knowledge." The competing demands of public welfare and private profit occupy Darnton in several pieces, while others consider the still foggy realm of electronic publishing and the addition of value to the culture that people who work with books provide. The author also includes a few scholarly pieces on various aspects of the history of publishing ("Little isknown about the way books reached bookstores from printing shops"), connected to the earlier pieces only incidentally but pleasing all the same. Of much interest to anyone with a stake in the developing Google settlement, as well as for fans of books about books.
From the Publisher

Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2010
“A useful text with which to muse on this subject is Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs, 2009). In it, the onetime newspaper reporter, distinguished scholar of the Enlightenment and the history of the book, and director of Harvard's libraries, swings between explanations and concerns about Google Book Search, and how the situation with books today looks in the perspective of history. Many of his observations give pause.”

The Barnes & Noble Review

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. Its 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.

--Matthew Battles

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586488369
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 7/22/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,285,134
  • File size: 323 KB

Meet the Author

A former professor of European history at Princeton University, Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. The founder of the Guttenberg-e program, he is the author of many books. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Table of Contents

1 Google and the future of books 3

2 The information landscape 21

3 The future of libraries 43

4 Lost and found in cyberspace 59

5 E-books and old books 67

6 Gutenberg-e 79

7 Open access 103

8 A paean to paper 109

9 The importance of being bibliographical 131

10 The mysteries of reading 149

11 What is the history of books? 175

Bibliography 207

Index 209\

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Man Who Knows of What He Speaks.

    This book was not on my radar at all, it caught my eye at the library while I was browsing. The main draw to pick this book up was it's mention of dealing with digitized books and their place in the modern era. I have just purchased a Barnes & Noble Nook and felt the philosophical implications of digitized literature deserved some looking into.
    The book is essentially a collection of previously published magazine and trade publication articles by the author. They articles are catagorized into Past, Present and Future in the Case for Books. The author has a long carreer heading prominent libraries in the United States and is very well versed in the topic of books, both where they have come from and where they are going to.
    The most appealing essays for me came in the future section. Those articles deal with Google Book Search and the viability and implications of digitizing books. The Present and Past sections deal heavily with the study of and 'science' of books and reading.
    For the casual reader, a lot of the material maybe lost. The articles are not meant to entertain or enlighten so much. The articles serve more as they were published, to inform the book tradespeople. Librarians, publishes, authors, bibliographers and the like. That being said it is not totally inaccesable to thecommon reader and can be enjoyed to a degree to anyone who has a passing interest in the subject.

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