Darnton, The case for books

I’ve just read The Case for Books, a collection of essays over the last few decades by Robert Darnton— eminent cultural historian and current Director of the Harvard University Library. He’s a good antidote to both technophobes like Sven Birkerts and to naive enthusiasts (if any are left) of web culture. Darnton believes in the promise of access offered by the web. But he is also worried by the monopolistic tendencies of Google (several of the essays collected here are on Googlebooks), and as a historian of books, he suspects that there is much on paper that will never find its way into our newly digitized databases. So, basically, he’s for (a) making as much information as accessible as possible, and (b) saving books and paper. (He has a nice piece on Nick Baker’s campaign to save old newspapers from death at the hands of microfiching librarians.)

At the same point, the book does show the dangers of an essay collection. The same themes tend to get sounded over and over, and the argument of the book doesn’t get developed so much as illustrated with (to my eyes) increasingly obscure examples. Indeed, the best piece in the book might be its introduction, in which Darnton offers a brief intellectual autobiography—tracing his career from early days as a cub journalist on the Newark Star-Ledger, to a historian, to a historian of books, to an advocate of e-books, to a friendly critic of e-books. It’s an interesting journey—and it is a pleasure to read a discussion of technology that is neither a jeremiad nor a hosanna.


Darnton, Robert. 2009. The case for books. New York: PublicAffairs.


About Joe Harris

I teach composition, creative nonfiction, and digital writing at the University of Delaware.
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4 Responses to Darnton, The case for books

  1. John Duffy says:

    Thanks for this. I’d like to read the essays.

  2. Trauman says:

    Hey, Joe. Glad to see I’m not the only one interested in Darnton’s book. I agree with what you’ve said above: repeated themes throughout the text, a fascinating introduction, and the chapter on Baker.

    One of the things I found so valuable about this book are some of his discussions about the future of the book. He eschews sweeping and reductive claims about what’s going to happen to the codex. Instead, he focuses on future books from the perspective of scholarly, academic publishing. His discussion of the Gutenberg-e project I found, like you, to be pretty obscure, but a great, concrete example of just how difficult it is for electronic texts to find legitimacy in current academic conditions.

    One of the things I found most interesting about this book was his seemingly relentless interest in the GoogleBooks project. You’re right. He keeps bringing it up, and re-covering the same ground. But the reason I find it so valuable is that each of those discussions is an example of him working to put into practice his analytical tool, the “communications circuit,” a term he uses to structure his analysis of the cultural systems working together as part of book cultures (authors, publishers, etc.).

    He suspects, I think, that Google’s overwhelming influence, given the scope of its current scanning/archiving initiatives, will directly affect the fate of books in the near and distant future. Your comment about his avoiding common tendencies toward jeremiads and hosannas is right on the money. He’s always worked to understand books as one physical/conceptual element in several intersecting industries (retail sales, printing, retail booksellers, academic audiences, etc.). His model, by the nature of is complexity rightly resists claims about the codex’s immanent destruction. He shows that there are just too many people and too much money and too many cultural institutions that employ the book as a central technology. All of these investments aren’t easily or quickly changed (which is why the form of the book still has yet to change much, despite plenty of powerful technologies for building and distributing electronic books of all different sorts. Changes in books won’t change our institutions very quickly. Nor will changes in institutions affect the way the forms of books continue to emerge.

    So why, then, the focus on Google? I don’t think he adequately addresses this in his book’s introduction. But here’s my guess…

    There are two ways (in which I’m particularly interested, anyway) that books operate culturally. The first has to do with the ways textuality structures knowledge. For instance, books are structured very differently than newspapers, and the types of knowledge-work that each accomplishes is very different. If we change the way books are structured, then to some degree we change nature of the ways knowledge operates within them. The second cultural operation of books has to do with the way knowledge circulates. Long story, shortened here… the form of the codex facilitated portability and reproducibility in a way that radically (though gradually) changed cultural access to knowledge and the value we place on it.

    So what does this have to do with Google? Two things. First, and most simply, digitizing books and making them available for searching and downloading has the potential to change the way we value different forms of knowledge. For some people that’s scary, and for others it’s exciting.

    But the other thing that’s important to note is that Google, in a lot of ways, functions much differently that some traditional corporate entities. It’s search-dominance has made the overall company so rich and so big, that it’s shareholders don’t really expect much of the rest of the company to be directly profitable. That is it’s got all sorts of cash and infrastructure, it can move very quickly given it’s relative autonomy, and there’s not real pressure to be immediately or highly profitable. So it can dedicated shockingly large sums of resources to scanning these books in ways that no other company could really even imagine. I’m still working this out in my head and in various things I’m reading, but I think, to some degree, Google has the potential to either undermine or work outside of Darnton’s traditional “communications circuit” model, given that it’s big enough to start controlling the bulk of the systems traditionally intersecting within the model. In other words, the components of Darnton’s model no longer negotiate and keep each other in check. Instead, in the case of Google, there’s the potential that each of the components will be controlled by a common hand. And this potential phenomenon, too, is cause for some pretty serious concern.

    Man, this response is really very long. Much, much longer than I had initially intended. Sorry about that. I’m going to go ahead and post it to my own blog and send any readers back here to yours.

    And I also hope you don’t take offense to this sort of comment. I didn’t intend to lecture you on the history of the bibliography or all these ideas about Google. Mostly, I’m just using this commenting space you’ve created as a place to think these things through. Until you posted this entry, I hadn’t really been putting a lot of these ideas together.

    So I hope you can see it as a sign of respect. That’s my intention.

    Thanks for posting on such an important text!



  3. Jonathan Dueck says:

    Thanks for the very interesting discussion, Joe! It’d be interesting to see a followup discussion of Apple’s foray into ebooks, as well as the Kindle; and perhaps some consideration of what the app model of accessing the _internet_ (as opposed to search models of accessing the _web_, like Google’s) might portend for books, whether digitized or not.

  4. Pingback: Trembling Before the Google Books Project, a Response to Joe Harris

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