Sunday, November 22, 2009

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

By Book or by Crook A review by Gerry Donaghy from Powell's Books website.

At a recent Book Expo America, author Sherman Alexie, in speaking to an audience of independent booksellers, expressed his desire to hit a woman who he saw using Amazon's Kindle on his flight to New York. I wonder if Alexie would have been so quick to resort to fisticuffs if the woman in question was reading one of his books (he claims to refuse to allow electronic versions of his novels to exist, but he seems okay with his poetry on the Kindle).

But such is the emotional power that books have over readers. They inspire thought and action, and they are brandished as totems to express who we are (or at least who we aspire to be). And while many people could go their lives without books of any kind beyond a telephone directory, most readers are passionate about them, both as vessels of information and objects to fetishize. And, like certain pugilistic Native American writers, readers have passionate ideas about what books represent.

Academic and director of the Harvard Library, Robert Darnton has recently pulled together a series of essays on the subject and published them as The Case for Books, which, in the face of so many different options for information retrieval, pleads an elegant case for the continued existence of the codex.

While Darnton is not against the notion of electronic books (he helped found the Gutenberg EPUB project, which is an online facility for scholarly articles and monographs), rather he lucidly points out what can be missed if information takes a one-way ticket to digitization. For example, the size, shape, and texture of a book inform our reading experience as much the content, as Darnton writes, these physical characteristics "provide clues about [a book's] existence as an element in a social and economic system."

But while Darnton can endlessly lavish praise on the book, he is cognizant of its limitations, writing, "the traditional media have no greater claim than the electronic media to mastery of the past," really identifying that, despite claims to it being a recent affliction, readers and researchers have been suffering from information overload for centuries.

For Darnton, what really gives books their appeal is what they represent to those who read them and record their thoughts on them within the margins, because a book can "reveal a great deal about its place in the intellectual life of its readers." However, it is on this tangent that The Case for Books begins to loose steam for me. It's not that an argument can't be made for the scholarship mined from such marginalia, but rather the length and detail that the author devotes to this made me feel I was reading a different book than the one described as an "in-depth examination of the book from its earliest beginnings to its shifting role today in popular culture, commerce and the academy," as the dust jacket touts.

It's not that the scholarship is lacking, but rather I was expecting more of an exploration of the book as an object and commodity, rather than a disproportionate number of pages devoted to what has been learned from specific books and what their owners used them for.

But, because this is a collection of previously published essays, I guess a certain amount of topical lane-changing should be expected, as is a certain amount of redundancy. Despite the title page's announcement that these essays had been edited to reduce these incidents, the reader will have to slog through repeated observations on the high cost of academic journals, as well as how even the best computerized solutions for data and information storage are flawed in the race for longevity when compared to good old-fashioned book form. Or, to steal a Chinese proverb recently quoted on Mad Men: The faintest ink is better than the strongest memory.

While it was an occasionally eye-glazing experience, The Case for Books is a worthwhile read for bibliophiles. And if you are more than a bit wonkish on the subject, perhaps you'll enjoy the parts I did not. Where I was expecting the casual, I encountered the scholarly, and that isn't really a bad thing.

* Read more about this book

Thanks to veteran North Shore bookman Ian Free for bringing this review/feature to my attention. And to Gerry Donaghy for his thoughtful review and the ever-resourceful Powell's for publishing it on their impressive website. May they all prosper.

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