The Case For Books
by Robert Darnton
An intriguing collection of essays by the brilliant social historian who became Harvard’s librarian. Darnton oversaw Harvard’s confrontation with Google Books, but he is no technophobe and is, in fact, planning an ambitious interactive history of the early book trade. Indeed, his plans are an indispensible credential, showing that he's not merely obstructing technology but actively striving to push it toward more useful channels.
As a nod to his planned historical hypertext,(and perhaps to blogging) the essays in this book are anti-chronological, moving from speculations on Google and the future of scholarship back toward the early history of printing and bookselling. The historical chapters are stronger because they are fresher; our Google anxieties have already been extensively aired, and Darnton’s ambitious hypertext, for all its promise, is still unrealized. From its description here, it’s not entirely clear that the contribution to hypertext (as opposed to its contribution to History) will eclipse the pioneering historical work of Landow and Ayers and Rosenzweig.
But I found myself strangely eager to see how book smuggling actually operated to get Voltaire into the hands of Montpellier readers, and we have lots to learn from (and about) the early book trade.