Anyone with more than a passing interest in publishing and reading has, by now, heard something about the predicted changes to the printed word. Many have come with a great deal of hand-wringing. Online retailer Amazon has taken what used to be a technology joke and made it mainstream with its Kindle e-book reader. Competitors are springing up, including a potential challenge from Apple; it would appear that words on paper no longer must compete only with television, but also with books on screens.
Robert Darnton may be the best positioned person in the world to explore the implications of e-books, and his book "The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future," walks a careful, thoughtful line between erudite scholarship and a book-loving layperson's consideration of the future of paper.
Darnton brings to the table years of dedicated research into books and their history, as well as his own forward-thinking excursions in e-publishing. He provides necessary perspective, both on the arguments against e-books that are unnecessarily alarmist and the dangers of relying on technology to preserve the past.
He explores individual aspects of the debate from both sides. The relatively new widespread availability of information via the Internet is noted as a boon to research and scholarship. Technology can reduce years of combing through seemingly limitless old records to months or weeks, but as this technology is fine-tuned, it becomes a commodity. Darnton notes that commodification of information has led to hard times for libraries -- as ridiculous as it may seem, one of the many financial burdens on academic libraries is the academic journal. For example, a yearly subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology is $25,910.
Darnton's book is a series of essays written over many years. Though edited for overlap, this results in some repetition between chapters -- Google Book Search is explained more than once, details about the splitting of book bindings in the conversion to microfilm are repeated. That's a minor quibble, though, given the way in which Darnton has taken an approach that puts the hand-wringing -- and laudatory celebrations -- in perspective, without diminishing the seriousness of either. He's also applied a masterly eye for detail, condensing a history of books into enlightening insights about where we may find the book -- in its many forms -- in the future.