Through the centuries, technologies have profoundly affected the way people read. When the codex—that is, a book with pages to turn—replaced the scroll, readers approached the text differently. They could now concentrate easily on a single page and individual paragraphs and chapters. Printing with movable type made books available to thousands of people previously denied the reading experience. And electronic technology in our own day has again changed the communications landscape.
Robert Darnton knows this territory as well as anyone and views the subject from a unique perspective. As a scholar, he helped invent the modern discipline of the History of the Book and is the Director of the Harvard University Library. He loves rare book rooms but is also enthusiastic about creating a digital Republic of Letters. The stimulating and thought-provoking essays in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future provide us with an excellent overview of where we have been and where we are likely to be headed.
Darnton points out that in each age the information technology has been unstable. Even in our day, there is no guarantee that copies made by Google Book Search—or anyone else—will last. He notes that digital copies are even more vulnerable than microfilm, the advanced technology of several years ago, to decay and obsolescence. “Paper,” he writes, “is still the best medium of preservation, and libraries still need to fill their shelves with words printed on paper.” He believes the strongest argument for the book is how effective it is for ordinary readers. Each of us can pick up a book and read it; a computer screen does not give most of us the same satisfaction. Darnton quotes Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, as admitting that for anything more than four or five pages he prefers printed paper to computer screens.
Darnton’s thoughtful and incisive essays on this important topic should be of interest to a wide range of book lovers.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller.