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.