Review: The Case for Books

The Case for Books by Robert Darnton

Whenever people say that books are dying out, I want to give them a good smack up the head. As Robert Darnton points out in The Case for Books, more and more books are being published every year. The digital reader poses very little threat. Still, it’s not like you can dismiss the digitization of books. And that’s why I picked up The Case for Books–I wanted to hear about the topic from a gentleman who is assuredly on my bibliophilic side.

The Case for Books is a collection of essays by Robert Darnton concerning books, ranging from thoughts on the controversial Google Book Search to his landmark essay concerning book history. It’s organized in three sections–Future, which deals with Google and digitization, Present, which deals mostly with Darnton’s Gutenberg-e project (not to be confused with Project Gutenberg), and Past, which deals with book history as a field.

While the cover and a great deal of copy makes this collection sound like it deals solely with the recent Google Book Search controversy, Darnton’s essays are wildly varied, explaining the Google Book Search controversy before moving on to examine book selling in Voltaire’s time. The man knows all of his stuff (as one would hope of the Director of the Harvard University Library), and holds forth as confident as a comfortable academic can be.

The Google Book Search dominates the first third of the book. While Darnton is eager to dream of the first truly international library, he accepts that Google is, first and foremost, a business rather than an entity interested in the public interest. Still, he thinks it–as well as digitization–can provide the best way to create what the Enlightenment thinkers thought of as “the Republic of letters”, where everyone has access to the same knowledge. I was impressed to the bone when Darnton makes note of the fact that there are libraries around the world that have wildly unique repositories that ought to be made public–he makes note that a particular library has a marvelous collection of Ukrainian literature, while Ukraine itself has lost most of those books and artifacts during political upheaval.

While the Google Book Search pops up repeatedly in the first few essays, Darnton’s focus, when it comes to digitization, is its usefulness for the academic community. He offers up digital journals as an alternative to the painfully expensive and painfully difficult to get published in professional journals that all fields, especially the hard sciences, require. When he details how the publishers of the professional journals have hiked up prices, forcing libraries to spend their budgets on journals instead of acquisitions, a bibliophile can’t help but get her dander up. He suggests publishing these articles online and selling them in either a bundle or separately (the bundle, of course, is cheaper per paper).

Darnton’s Gutenberg-e project experiments with that very model. One of the articles (I believe it’s “Gutenberg-e”, but don’t hold me to it–I don’t have the book on hand while I’m writing this) is mostly composed of his proposal and his midway assessment of the project. While that article can be quite dry, it’s nice to see that Darnton is actually trying to do something, instead of just thinking about it.

While the first two sections run into each other nicely, the third section, “Future”, is eclectic in the extreme. It starts off with a review of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold, which is about the needless destruction of newspapers and other books in fear that the books were decaying at an accelerated pace (another article that will move any bibliophile), and then delves into the importance of bibliography, commonplace books during the 1700s, and an article about the history of books that deals mostly with the history of a bookshop selling Voltaire’s latest work. After the fairly smooth and related articles of the first two sections, it’s really jarring.

And that’s the main problem with The Case for Books. The third section really doesn’t have much to do with the titular case for books. They’re plenty interesting–I was quite taken with how readers a few centuries ago rarely read things cover to cover, as I do–but they don’t quite link up. There’s also an accessibility issue. While the first half of the essays are accessible to your Average Jane, the second half can be a little thick to get through. I’ve just taken a class covering mostly all of literary theory, and even I found some of the later articles hard to get through. While it can be repetitive, especially concerning Google Book Search, I can forgive it. These are all disparate articles, despite the (mostly) shared content–I wouldn’t expect him not to explain what Google Book Search is in each article.

Lastly, you can actually read one of Darnton’s articles from this collection online, “Google and the Future of Books”. If you’re on the fence about the book or just want to learn more about the Google Book Search controversy, check it out.

Bottom line: An interesting collection of articles concerning Google Book Search, the digital age of the library, and the usefulness of digital books for academia, The Case for Books goes off the rails towards the end, including much more academic articles about subjects that aren’t really related to the titular case for books. Still, it’s an interesting read for any bibliophile.

I rented this book from the public library.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Case for Books

  1. Sounds like (at least part of it is) an interesting read. I’ve read a bit about the Google Books controversy, but not enough to feel like I have a really good handle on what’s gone on there. I can always give the duller essays a miss. 🙂

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