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The Case for Books: 256 [Paperback]

Robert Darnton
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Sep 2010
Renowned historian Robert Darnton - a pioneering scholar in the history of the book, and a leading voice in the debate about the digital future of books and knowledge - distils his experience and insight. The era of the book as the unrivalled source and vehicle for knowledge is coming to an end. Digitisation makes the physical properties of books disposable; e-book readers and mobile phones render them portable and accessible almost everywhere. Google and Amazon could command near monopolistic positions as sellers and dispensers of digital information relatively unfiltered by the traditional caucus of book experts: editors, proof-readers, and expert retailers. This is the moment when books could both spring free of the limitations of production processes that have constrained them for 500 years and could also shatter into smithereens, shards of scattered knowledge no longer bound and made meaningful by context, cover and care. Robert Darnton is a unique authority, whose work on this subject for more than a decade has helped invent the discipline of the "History of the Book". An essayist, expert witness and commentator, he is a leading voice on the significance of the changes that are taking place in the world of books and digitization. As the Librarian at Harvard (the world's most prestigious book collection), he is intellectually responsible for the status and functioning of the world's largest university library. He is the author of many books, monographs and contributions to public knowledge. This timely book assembles the writings Darnton has done on this subject for a range of publications including the "New York Review of Books", where he is a regular contributor.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; Reprint edition (9 Sep 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 158648902X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586489021
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 341,701 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'In this lucid and erudite collection of essays, Darnton argues that new technology should be used in the spirit of the Enlightenment - to encourage wider access to knowledge - and not just to enrich one company.'

--The Guardian

About the Author

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. A Harvard graduate and former Oxford University Rhodes Scholar he worked as a New York Times reporter before joining the History Faculty at Princeton University. Darnton is the author of many books, including The Great Cat Massacre (9780394729275, Vintage) and a regular contribution to publications including the New York Review of Books.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real pleasure to read! 16 May 2010
This book offered a great insight into the world of digitised books, as well as exploring the history and importance of "old" books and Libraries amongst other things (as the cover states past, present and future) The way in which Darnton has put his thoughts and work together made it a pleasure to read. I had originally planned to just skip through the pages very briefly in order to add some quotes/ info to an Essay I have to write on the subject, but I have to say that I was surprised to find that i couldn't stop myself from reading it properly. I didn't know anything about this subject area and I felt that this book is a great introduction to the field.
Although this is irrelevant to the content of the book, i have to comment on the cover which I just love.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not to be missed if you are in publishing! 9 Nov 2010
I did not know about Robert Darnton (much to my regret) until I came across the book and it was purely because of the cover! it is beautiful and very, very apt, considering the ongoing debate about books and eBooks. Its a collection of 11 essays, all very engaging, informative and thought provoking. Not to be overlooked if one has anything whatsoever to do with publishing. Some of the ideas people are just beginning to broach about the possibilities of eBooks, Robert had them all figured out way back in the XX century.

While he is optimistic, encouraging and open to eBooks and eBook technology, he is an unashamed lover of the printed word!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic! 13 Mar 2013
By Bree
Robert Darnton is fantastic! His arguments are well thought out and related; the essays are well connected clearly outlining the theme and objectives of the book. An easy read that will leave you pensive on the past, present and future of books, print, digital and otherwise.
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2 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Preachy stuff... 24 Nov 2010
There was the beginning, covering details of the Google Book Settlement, fine, that was OK, then it was pages and pages of boring writing repeatedly deploring how we are now threatened by the Google Book Monopoly, literally a whinge about how the Rebulic of Letters didn't work in the C18th, and how Google owning so much of the book world through digitalising it all is a direct threat to public freedom to access information. You could have argued that just as well in 4 pages.
Finally on pg 37 we get to how exactly Google might be a weaker form of book-archiving than is generally believed - I have to read the rest of it, but given the title I was expecting something much more cooly written and much less sentimental, like adult level writing is.
We'll see if it improves by the end.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A hymn of praise to both books and e-books 27 Nov 2009
By S. McGee - Published on
Robert Darnton doesn't want to have to choose between books and e-books. That's at the core of this compelling collection of essays and articles, some of which have been published elsewhere and some of which are new. He wants knowledge to be available and accessible -- and loves the idea of how new technologies can accomplish that. On the other hand, he has a number of concerns about the unintended or unexpected consequences of a future that rests solely on digital content, such as the fact that Google and others pursuing projects to digitize books aren't doing so as a public service. As Darnton points out, they do not see libraries as "temples of learning", but rather buildings that contain "potential assets or what they call 'content', ready to mined" at a cost that will be a fraction of the expense that went into building those collections.

Some of the interesting topics touched on in this eclectic collection are the economics of publishing -- what is a scholar to do in a world where university presses can't count on selling 800 copies of a monograph? Can electronic publishing help meet the needs of the scholarly community to publish or perish -- and what is the price that would be paid? Darnton speaks out about the tendency of some librarians to value space and what that means for preservation; as well as the dangers associated with simply tossing out old newspapers after reproducing them on microfilm. (What if the microfilm is fuzzy? What if someone made margin notes that aren't reproduced; yet those margin notes inform later scholars or historians far more than the original content itself, with the passage of time?) There is an essay on bibliography and the importance of studying the history of the publication of a book or work (such as the various folios of Shakespeare).

My favorite of these essays, however, revolves around the way we read. Today, most of us wouldn't dream of reading in any other way from beginning to end (unless we cheat and try to find out how a mystery or romance novel ends because we can't stand the suspense). Darnton explores the way in which earlier generations of avid readers approached their books in a very different and far more utilitarian manner, using them as source material. That in turn begs the question of how differently we may approach content a few centuries from now. Darnton's collection is a plea of sorts to consider how we can keep what is valuable even as we open new doors to the transmission of our thoughts and ideas in print, whether on paper or cyber-paper.

I've rated this book 4.5 stars; rounded it down because some of the material overlaps and repeats (particularly the early chapters focusing on Google Book Search) and because Darnton doesn't go far enough in establishing a common theme linking and connecting these essays and articles. I'm familiar with many of the topics Darnton touches upon, and with the history of printing and publishing, and still found myself pausing to try and follow his train of thought and logic as I moved from one piece to the next. Each of those segments, however, will make fascinating reading for anyone interested in what the digital age means for conventional publishing, for scholarship and for readers, particularly since Darnton approaches his topics with clear eyes and a level head. This is no latter-day Luddite eager to bash technology, just someone who is trying to understand both its merits and the new set of risks it creates.

Recommended primarily to those interested in the general topic of publishing and cyber-publishing; I'd also suggest reading Darnton's excellent The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which explores the ways in which even before the Internet and e-books, eager readers found ways to circumvent attempts at censorship.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Case for Books 1 Dec 2009
By barbara a. trumpinski (kitten) - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
After reading Robert Darnton's book The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future I would recommend it for every bibliophile's "books to read" list. Darnton is not only the director of the Harvard library, he is also a historian who has devoted a great deal of time and energy to the history of books, writing, printing and reading. The book provides an overview of the subject without trying to do too much and without being dry and too technical. (I liked it so much I will admit to purchasing my own copy after I had read the first 6 chapters.)

As indicated by the title, The Case for Books is divided into three sections, as indicated by the title, but the Introduction has one of the most important points in the book, in my opinion. Darnton says:"A generation "born digital" is "always on," conversing everywhere on cell phones, tapping out instant messages, and networking in real or virtual realities. The younger people you pass on the street or sit next to on a bus are both simultaneously there and not there." Even so, he doesn't want to choose between print and ebooks. He analyzes the way the public interacts with books and printing (he is especially fond of the 17th century and spends a lot of time on the craft of bibliography and the way it is possible to distinguish between editions of Shakespeare) and then provides one of the best and certainly one of the clearest explanations of the Google book settlement that I have read. He is obviously a fan of Google Books and other projects that provide access to information, but he is also not overly dazzled and points out the danger of giving one commercial entity a monopoly or even fostering an oligopoly.

I particularly liked the chapters that dealt with reading. The description of the "commonplace book" of the 17th century was facinating, as I had not heard of this before. He points to the idea of the history of books as the history of communication in print. Ideas are transmitted through the written word and books have shaped the thought and behavior of mankind for the last 500 years. Books aren't going to disappear. They may change format, but that has happened many times in the past.

Darnton talked briefly about Open Access, and he has what is not quite a rant on the topic of destroying books to preserve them. This has happened in the past when the powers that be thought that microform was the wave of the future. It is not quite so bad with Google as scanning techniques have improved, but Google has sadly lacked quality control, praticularly in some of its earlier scanning projects. Cyberspace needs to be regulated and have standards, but the information needs to be available for students and general readers alike. Information is valuable but it is not knowledge. Knowledge is priceless. I was surprised that he didn't mention projects other than Google Books which are providing material for free, for example Project Gutenburg, the Hathi Library and the internet Archives, all of which are fine examples of providing public access to information.

He also talked about university press publishing and Gutenburg-e, which was a project to provide electronic copies of the top dissertations in history, combining the work of the Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association and financed by Carnegie Mellon. It was only moderately successful and has ended. University Presses are publishing less and less because the public won't buy the books that are published and libraries can no longer afford them. There are fewer and fewer venues for faculty to publish and that has negatively affected academia which is still tied to print publishing as a means of advancing.

Darnton obviously loves his subject and his profession. I think bibliophiles, librarians and others who are interested in the whys and wherefores of books that are either digital or paper who read A Case for Books will be satisfied.
41 of 50 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing 19 Jan 2010
By Comstock - Published on
There is no case for this book, which is deceptively marketed and disappointing.

The title indicates that Robert Darnton, an eminent historian and scholar, will mount an argument in favor of books. Instead, what follows is a series of his old articles, dating back to the early 1980s, with nothing seriously unifying the group.

A few of these old articles, laid out as chapters, are somewhat interesting. However, others are shameful, including one that reproduces a grant proposal he made in 1997, followed by a progress report from 2002. This is just lazy and insulting to readers.

Nowhere on the outer cover does it indicate that this is a collection of previously published essays; there's just a passing mention in the back flap. Seemingly, they wanted this to look like a book that it is not.

I do admire Darnton as a scholar, but I have lost admiration for him after this. For he, who so admires books, to release this is neither a tribute to the medium, nor to his readers.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite what it seems 16 May 2011
By hrladyship - Published on
Darnton's book is not quite what it seems. The title of The Case for Books seems to indicate that the contents would be details on the importance of books as they currently exist. In this age of the digitization of nearly everything that isn't nailed down, a lot of bibliophiles feel that their treasures are being attacked and may disappear in the near future. It is these current conditions that lead the reader to believe they know what arguments Darnton will be trying to prove once the cover is turned back.

As it turns out, only the new "chapter" on Google fits most expectations. Darnton makes a case both for and against digitization of books, but mostly he comes out against. One reason is the potential for loss of control of the books by both authors and publishers that could be a result of this and other projects. Another reason is having the control of much of the written word in the hands of one entity. This does not bode well for anyone in the business - including readers. Whether this is Google's intent, the project does tend to bring out the paranoia in those who believe in access to all books by all people.

The rest of the book is a re-printing of several earlier essays by Darnton, something that is not mentioned specifically on the book covers. Some of these are interesting, some are not. The chapter on the grant proposal would be useful only for someone looking for a sample of such, and does not make interesting reading. The same could be said for the chapter "The Importance of Being Bibliographical.

Now, the chapter on commonplace books was delightful, especially since this was a term I had never heard. I am familiar with marginalia (the practice of writing comments in the margins of books). Although I'd never heard the term commonplace books, copying down passages from books as I read them is a long-time part of my reading habits. It was also interesting to learn the differences in how we read today (starting at the beginning and reading straight through) vs. the way our ancestors read (reading various parts out of order). That this difference may be due in part to the popularization of novels is an interesting idea.

Much of this book was interesting to read, but it didn't quite live up to the promise of its title. Readers interested in problems we face in the publishing world today might find Digital Barbarians of interest. It deals with copyright issues that have been created in a world where so much information is easily available, and some don't believe in ownership rights of authors and publishers.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting Essays About the History and Future of Books 6 Sep 2010
By Dr. Marc Axelrod - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a collection of essays about books. Darnton is enthralled about the possibilities of Google Books, because it has the potential of providing a worldwide library available to all those with access to the internet, but he is also concerned with Google being a monopoly, and he is realistic about copyright holders who may think twice about wanting to make all of their books available online without reasonable compensation.

Darnton is not worried about the future of books in codex form, since it will be very difficult for modern technology to make something easier and more portable and convenient than an actual bound book. He envisions a world where there will be an increasing variety of ways to access information.

Darnton is an 18th century European scholar, and this comes through in some of the essays. He shows how even journalists from that era wrote stories that were based on faulty fact finding, just as internet bloggers are often accused of today.

The essays in The Case for Books are placed in reversed chronological order, but they show how well Darnton has been able to see into the future of books. The last essay is of value because it provides a powerful proposal for schools to consider the history of books as an area worthy of study.

This book is well worth reading, and it will make you love books more, both bound and unbound.
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