books on books, part 1: robert darnton, the case for books

This is the first in a trio of "what i'm reading" posts falling under the general category of books about books, or reading about reading. After Roddy Doyle, these books are the top three books on my spring-summer to-read list. I started with The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future by Robert Darnton.

I was introduced to the work of Robert Darnton in an elective course, "The History of Books and Printing," then encountered him again in my Foundations of Library and Information Science course. Darnton's long career is impressive indeed. He's one of the leading scholars in the field called History of the Book. He taught history at Princeton University for nearly 40 years, he's a past president of the American Historical Association, he's worked as a journalist and in publishing, has been a trustee of the New York Public Library, and is the founder of two innovative digital publishing programs, the Electronic Enlightenment and Gutenberg-e. Most recently, Darnton is the head librarian of Harvard University.

What's most interesting to me about Darnton is that he is both eminently scholarly and erudite, yet practical and down-to-earth. He has a consistently progressive perspective, never forgetting that the world he and his readers inhabit is one of privilege, and always striving for greater access and the democratization of learning. His writing is clean and elegant, free of academic jargon and obfuscation - a joy to read.

"The Case for Books" is a collection of essays that have been previously published in the New York Review of Books and other venues. It's divided into three sections: Future - thoughts on where books fit in to the digital age, and especially on the Google Book Settlement, Present - tales from the transition to digitization, and Past - concerning the study of writing, reading and the History of the Book. I suspect most general, non-specialist readers will be most interested in the first part, but the whole book is worth reading. There are gems throughout.

As Librarian of Harvard, Darnton's dream was a national digital library, and eventually a global digital library, accessible to everyone with internet access, free of charge. To pave the way, he pioneered a program of digitization and openness at Harvard, one that both respected copyright and promoted access. This was enthusiastically embraced by the faculty.

Darnton proposed a national program to invest in digitization - an enormous digital Library of Congress. But somewhere along the way, Darnton's dream was co-opted, and morphed into Google Books. It's not the same thing. As Darnton explains, the primary purpose of libraries is to bring information to users. Google's primary purpose is profit. The two goals may sometimes dovetail, but they are essentially different. As it stands, a private, for-profit, proprietary (non-transparent) enterprise controls access to an enormous amount of information, and for various legal reasons, is poised to have exclusive control of even more information for the foreseeable future and beyond.

Darnton is not anti-Google. But he is concerned - as we all should be - about a private company having what amounts to monopoly control over so much information. His conclusions about the current state of digital access leave me saddened, because our profit-driven society missed a unique opportunity for public access to education on a grand scale.

On the subject of e-books, I notice that many readers' opinions tend towards the simplistic. "E-books are great because they take up less space and use less paper, and have lots of fun features." "E-books are less satisfying than print. Who wants to curl up with a Kindle?" And so on. Darnton shows the issues to be much more complex; his essays offer a much fuller, more nuanced understanding of the differences between the two.

The Case for Books makes a very strong argument for why e-books cannot and should not replace paper, even as it fully embraces the possibilities and wonder of the digital age. Even if think you understand all the implications of e-books, chances are you will learn something from Darnton. At the very least, he will challenge your perspectives and assumptions.

Darnton places the digital era in the context of the three previous major shifts in information technology - the invention of writing, the movement from scroll to codex (that is, book form), and the advent of printing. When I wrote about Elizabeth Eisenstein (for the course I mentioned above) - arguing that the shift from manuscript to print was a greater change than the shift from print to digital - I read some of Darnton's critiques of Eisenstein's work. His assertion that the movement from scroll to codex was an even greater change than the advent of printing surprised and fascinated me.

Darnton believes - and I agreed, long before I read this book - that, despite the name given our present time, every age has been an "information age".
When I try to foresee the future, I look into the past. Here, for example, is a futuristic fantasy published in 1771 by Louse Sébastien Mercier in his best-selling utopian tract, The Year 2440. Mercier falls asleep and wakes up in the Paris that will exist seven centuries after his birth in 1740. He finds himself in a society purged of all the evils from the ancient régime. In the climactic chapter of volume one, he visits the national library, expecting to see thousands of volumes splendidly arrayed as in the Bibliothèque du roi

Mercier was a militant advocate of enlightenment and a true believer in the printed word as an agent of progress. He did not favor book burning. But his fantasy expressed a sentiment that was already strong in the eighteenth century and has now become an obsession - the sense of being overwhelmed with information and of helplessness before the need to find relevant material amidst a mountain of ephemera.
As all of human history is a vast Information Age, Darnton expresses his awe of the sum of human knowledge, his humbleness in how little any of us can really know, and our urgent need to preserve - and make accessible - all we can.
Any author knows how much must be eliminated before a text is ready for printing, and any researcher knows how little can be studied in the archives before the text is written. The manuscripts seem to stretch into infinity. You open a box, take out a folder, open the folder, take out a letter, read the letter, and wonder what connects it with all the other letters in all the other folders in all the boxes, not just in this repository but in all the archives everywhere. The overwhelming majority have never been read by researchers. And most people never wrote letters. Most human beings have vanished into the past without leaving a trace of their existence. To write history from the archives is to piece together what little we can grasp in as meaningful a picture as we can compose. But the result, the form of a history book, can no more capture the infinity of experience than [St.] Augustine could comprehend the mind of God.
Darnton makes a strong case for extreme skepticism of all sources, be they digital or print: "In short, the traditional media have no greater claim than the electronic media to mastery of the past." "News is not what happened but a story about what happened." He describes his days as a young journalist, and how stories were chosen and composed, then concludes:
Having learned to write news, I now distrust newspapers as a source of information, and I am often surprised by historians who take them as primary sources for knowing what really happened. I think newspapers should be read for information about how contemporaries construed events, rather than for reliable knowledge of events themselves.
The later essays in The Case for Books are more specific and somewhat more academic. I didn't understand all the references, and many readers may glaze over a bit. But even when the specific topic is a bit esoteric, there are lovely, interesting tidbits. For example, in "The Mysteries of Reading," Darnton reviews some studies of "commonplace books". These were notebooks kept by readers, especially in the 17th and 18th Centuries. When a reader came upon a passage that particularly resonated for him (these were usually kept by men), he would copy it into the notebook and add his own observations and annotations. I had never heard of the commonplace book, but it gave historical context to my own books of quotations, in which I copied song lyrics and passages from novels. I added to them for decades, and have saved them all, a kind of running record of what I found meaningful and beautiful at various times of my life.

The introduction to commonplace books also revealed that 17th and 18th Century readers, in some respects, had more in common than with readers in the early 20th Century.
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end . . . early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they re-read the copies and re-arranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities.
In other words: proto-web 2.0 and 17th Century mashups.

This in turn reminded me of what I learned from reading Elizabeth Eisenstein: that the essential nature of reading has changed many times in history, with the advent of different information technology, or changing social and cultural context.
...reading by turning the leaves of a codex as opposed to reading by unrolling a volume, reading printed texts in contrast to reading manuscripts, silent reading as distinct from reading aloud, reading alone rather than reading in groups, reading extensively by racing through different kinds of material vs reading intensively by perusing a few books many times. Now that the research has shifted to commonplace books, we may add segmental vs sequential reading to the list.
The Case for Books ends with the essay that introduced me to Darnton's work, in which he describes the field of History of the Book, and offers a model for future study. I had never heard of History of the Book, and I found it a difficult concept to grasp. Darnton says:
It might even be called the social and cultural history of communication by print, if that were not such a mouthful, because its purpose is to understand how ideas were transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thought and behaviour of mankind during the last five hundred years.
In a time when people are preparing funeral rites for the printed word, reflecting on the importance of print and of reading is a very valuable exercise.

Darnton online sampler:

Google & the Future of Books, New York Review of Books

A Digital Library Better Than Google's, New York Times Op-Ed

What didn't happen: An Interview with Robert Darnton on the Digital Public Library of America, The Historical Society, and companion videos, part one and part two (about 10 minutes each)

IT Panel: Information Overload in a Digitized World, video (9:44)

No comments: