Book Notes: The Case for Books

The Case for BooksWhatever the future may be, it will be digital. The present is a time of transition, when printed and digital modes of communication coexist and new technology soon becomes obsolete. Already we are witnessing the disappearance of familiar objects: the typewriter, now consigned to antique shops; the postcard, a curiosity; the handwritten letter, beyond the capacity of most young people, who cannot write in cursive script; the daily newspaper, extinct in many cities; the local bookshop, replaced by chains, which themselves are threatened by Internet distributors like Amazon. And the library?

It can look like the most archaic institution of all. Yet its past bodes well for its future, because libraries were never warehouses of books. They have always been and always will be centers of learning. Their central position in the world of learning makes them ideally suited to mediate between the printed and the digital modes of communication. Books, too, can accommodate both modes. Whether printed on paper or stored in servers, they embody knowledge and their authority derives from a great deal more than the technology that went into them. They owe some of their authority to authors, although they commanded respect long before the cult of the author took shape in the eighteenth century. As book historians insist, authors write texts, but books are made by book professionals, and the professionals exercise functions that extend far beyond manufacturing and diffusing a product. Publishers are gatekeepers, who control the flow of knowledge. From the boundless variety of matter susceptible to being made public, they select what they think will sell or should be sold, according to their professional expertise and their personal convictions. Publishers’ judgments, informed by long experience in the marketplace of ideas, determines what reaches readers, and readers need to rely on it more than ever in an age of information overload. By selecting texts, editing them, designing them to be readable, and bringing them to the attention of readers, book professionals provide services that will outlast all changes in technology.

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


(By way of explanation – I am attempting to start a new practice with all non-school books I read, which is to document anything relevant or interesting to me from the book on my blog. I read far too many things which slip away from me and I would like to keep a record of that which intrigues me – or may prove useful to some academic venture, some time – thus Book Notes.)

  • An interesting essay about the Gutenberg-E book experiment of 2000-2006 which underscores the difficulty in bringing down the price on books that have a limited audience – academic monographs – owing to the huge amount of institutional and editorial infrastructure which goes into any publication. Cheaper distribution in the form of e-texts doesn’t make for larger audiences which is not Darnton’s point but ultimately what strikes me as the fallacy about e-books being cheaper in a non-mass-market setting.
  • A Paen to Paper gets in the whacky world of attempting to save every bit of printed paper ever produced which Darnton seems to support. I suppose it makes sense, because he is a historian, but I fail to see that any institution will ever have the storage/space capacity to keep every newspaper, magazine and book ever printed on its shelves ad infinitum. Miniaturization and now digitization give us real tools to making this history accessible in a way that warehouses of old newspaper never could. It seems to me that most things that have survived history, did so because an individual or institution hoarded or shepherded that thing and passed it on – it was precious in some way – the daily newspaper and O magazine would just not pass that historical test.
  • In The Mysteries of Reading a lovely discussion of what the tradition of the Commonplace book can tell us about the minds and attitudes of some of our historic figures, or just about the age in which the individuals who kept them lived. The Commonplace book is a book of quotations taken from reading in snippets and copied into a journal to be easily referenced. Often these snippets were accompanied by droll comments or observations. I like the idea of creating a commonplace book on the web. There are now social media venues for this like Quotista, but any half-built social media startup is bound to fail before these records could make it into anything like posterity.

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