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

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

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A collection of essays about the future of the physical book and the threat posed to it by the digital revolution.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2010
Publisher: PublicAffairs
ISBN: 978-1586489021

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Reading a book, whether for study or relaxation, in the sitting room, in bed, on public transport, or almost anywhere else, has been one of everybody's favourite activities for many a long year, and not just by visitors and contributors to this site. (Therein lies a paradox, I hear you say). As Darnton points out in his introduction, the good old-fashioned book was not destroyed by newspapers (or magazines, for that matter), any more than television destroyed radio, or the internet made people abandon TV.

Yet nothing lasts forever. The typewriter, the postcard and even the handwritten letter used to be commonplace. A generation is growing up which increasingly regards these as relics of a bygone age. Local bookshops are threatened by the big chains, themselves at the mercy of Amazon. What implications does this have for the library, and most importantly the book?

In this collection of essays, Darnton, Historian and Director of the Harvard University Library, looks long and hard at the future of what we might call the information industry. The whole question is clouded by contradictions. We book lovers increasingly log on to the internet – this site, for example – but it does not lure us away from the printed word between hard or soft covers. New titles are still published annually in their thousands, and unlike new music releases, show little if any sign of being on a downward slope. The physical form is durable, and although certain kinds of paper and binding are subject to decay, books have still stood the test of time. The format is convenient, they are easily portable, are not dependent on a power supply, and they give off special rather inviting smells. Lest you think this sounds trivial, one French online publisher is trying to get round this by giving its customers a sticker that when affixed to their computer gives off a fusty, bookish smell. You couldn't make it up, could you?

About twenty years ago, libraries were busy transferring newspaper and journal runs to microfilm or microfiche. Time has proved that the results were often unsatisfactory and such materials were vulnerable to degrading – only after many thousands of bound volumes of original newspapers had been cut open, photographed, destroyed and therefore lost for ever. Much the same thing is thought to be happening with Google's controversial digitization of books. It will fail to reproduce texts perfectly, and does not commit itself to conserving them indefinitely. Its quality control is indifferent, as it employs thousands of engineers but, it seems, not a single bibliographer, and unlike the official copyright libraries in Britain or the American Library of Congress, is a private monopoly unregulated by law which could impose and raise prices sharply without being challenged.

Moreover, texts 'born digital' belong to an endangered species; we have lost 80% of all silent films, and 50% of those made before World War II.

These articles, some of which he admits were simply 'fired off', were written over a span of almost thirty years and have appeared in various other publications. Despite editing, there is a certain amount of overlap between them and the result does perhaps lack a little tidiness or tautness.

Darnton is a historian and librarian, who asks many questions though he is unable to come to firm conclusions, apart from conceding that 'whatever the future may be, it will be digital'. Given the nature of the subject, this is not surprising. The process of information technology has always been steadily evolving, though since the advent of the internet, it is perhaps doing so at a faster rate than ever before. Yet in his asking the questions, and demonstrating the pros and cons very sharply, he has done us a service in writing this book. Maybe I should add that he has also made a stand for the tried and tested traditional medium by making it available as a book and not publishing it online instead.

Our thanks to PublicAffairs for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For another, albeit very different look at books 'in book form', you may also be interested to read Enemies of Books by William Blades.

Buy The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton at

Buy The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton at


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