A couple of pieces by Robert Darnton have come to my attention lately. I thought a post on the history and future of the book would provide a nice, lively interlude between all the Samuel Johnson coverage lately.

First, apropos of his new book, Darnton provides the sobering statistics that the book is not only not dead, but that the ebook represents the merest sliver of the market for all books:

The book is not dead. In fact, the world is producing more books than ever before. According to Bowker, 700,000 new titles were published worldwide in 1998; 859,000 in 2003; and 976,000 in 2007. Despite the Great Recession of 2009 that has hit the publishing industry so hard, one million new books will soon be produced each year.

Yet the general lack of concern for history among Americans has made us vulnerable to exaggerated notions of historic change—and so has our fascination with technology. The current obsession with cellular devices, electronic readers and digitization has produced a colossal case of false consciousness. As new electronic devices arrive on the market, we think we have been precipitated into a new era. We tout “the Information Age” as if information did not exist in the past. Meanwhile, e-books and devices like the Kindle represent less than 1% of the expenditure on books in the United States.

History shows us that one medium does not necessarily displace another—at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing flourished long after Gutenberg’s invention; newspapers did not wipe out the printed book; the radio did not replace the newspaper; television did not destroy the radio; and the Internet did not make viewers abandon their television sets. Every age has been an age of information, each in its own way. In my new book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs), I make that very point, because I believe we cannot envisage the future—or make sense of the present—unless we study the past. Not necessarily because history repeats itself or teaches us lessons, but because it can help to orient us when faced with the challenges of new technologies.

His point is finely stated, I think. Books aren’t dead. Americans, as is our wont, are prone to infatuation with anything that promises to thrust us across some kind of millennial marker and into the future. Darnton, a good historian, instead asks us to go…

…by remembering the past so that we can orient ourselves to face future challenges. His position is balanced and sane, I think.

he second article is a Fine Books Magazine review of Darnton’s new book. In it, there are quotes that describe Darnton’s decade of work on an ebook and his vision of what the form might eventually be able to do:

It’s not that Darnton eschews the great possibilities of electronic communication. He has been working on an e-book for a decade, which he describes in a chapter titled Cyberspace. “An ‘e-book’ unlike a printed codex, can contain many layers arranged in the shape of a pyramid, Readers can download the text and skim through the topmost layer…if they come upon something that especially interests them, they can click down a layer to a supplementary essay or appendix. They can continue deeper through the book, through bodies of documents, bibliography, historiography, iconography, background music…” he writes. Darnton said he plans to get much of the documentation he has collected for the e-book online in the next year and invites readers to check it out while he finishes the main text.

Darton’s ebook is one that won’t translate well to the Kindle, with its notoriously bad image quality and (as far as I know) inability to play back music. What is most interesting about his proposal is the qualitative leap past the Kindle entirely. His vision of the ebook offers interesting possibilities to scholars, including the chance to integrate scholarly and popular publishing. Think of it: introductions to chapters might be written in a more accessible or popular style, with links to scholarly notes, essays, or dissertations available at various points. That would be game-changing in terms of the current divide between the two kinds of writing. And it might be that there would be a larger audience for scholarship if it was easily accessible. I’ve noticed that when I hand out photocopies (OK, pdfs) of a heavily-annotated text, my students invariably dig into the footnotes. Their curiosity is kindled (no pun intended) by the fact that there’s a note on something, and they want to find out what it is. I warn them not to get bogged down–Samuel Johnson warned that notes “refrigerate” the mind, distract the reader from appreciating the whole, and eventually cause such tedium that the reader quits the book, blaming it rather than the notes–but many of my students don’t listen, the little Faustuses.

Darnton also has a nice response to the whole Cushing Library debacle:

Darnton is undoubtedly a bibliophile, but one who recognizes that the printed book and the digital book must co-exist. He advocates the creation of a national digital library. But when asked about ‘bookless’ libraries, such as the Cushing Academy in Massachusetts, which recently decided to discard its 20,000-volume collection, he said he was “appalled.”

“It’s naïve to think that all information is online. It’s also naïve to think that all information is in books, either,” he said. “I see this vast world of information in many different forms, and the notion that digital is going to encompass it all is just wrong-headed.”

And this is precisely what I meant when I said that apathy plus technolust spells the death of critical thinking. Few people think as critically about books as Robert Darnton, one of the world’s foremost historians of the book. And yet here we have a very respectable private school, filled no doubt with motivated and concerned teachers and administrators, and the barest whiff of a new technology drives them to destroy a collection built over generations. As you can see if you follow the link back to my earlier post, the words of the administrators. teachers, and students reveal that they haven’t given the matter much if any thought. There’s state-of-the-art thinking on this complicated subject, but there’s no reason to give that even a cursory look: no, the technology is already available; technology is the future; ergo, time to destroy the past. The world would be a saner and steadier place if there were more Darntons in it, but alas it is overrun with iconoclasts. That too is just wrong-headed.

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