A lifelong love of books led me to pick “The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future,” Robert Darnton’s book of essays, off the shelf of the Kanawha County Public Library downtown .The titled intrigued me, as my wife and I are pulling up stakes and moving to a place with less space for books. Each time I have to decide on the disposal of a book is something like committing a great offense. If I could coin a word, it would be “bibliocide.” Even the act of giving a treasured volume to a friend has its difficulties. I ask: “Will he or she love this volume as I have loved it”?
Over the years, I have shared my once large-ish library with friends, libraries and schools. This final disposal has been hard, since it deals with a core of books which I deemed indispensable to my life. Actually, I have done well, all things considered.
I would like to commend Darnton, the director of the Harvard University Library, for his willingness to see the oncoming invasion of electronic books as a reality, and not to be feared. I am sure that he understands that the existence of the traditional library is not in mortal danger, but will be the subject of changes, as large collections of volumes will be reduced to digits and will float somewhere in cyberspace.
The traditional book does have a future. I will continue to haul them off the new bookshelves for the rest of my life. I hope that my granddaughter, who is thoroughly plugged in to the handheld texting devices, will come, some day, to love the feel of the bound book.
The casual reader, attempting to understand the revolutionary nature of such devices as Amazon’s e-book reader Kindle, will enjoy the essay titled “A Paean to Writing.” Darnton lays out the glories of books, and the misguided attempts, even by librarians, to discard them in favor of digital storage devices. In proclaiming the wonder of printed and bound books, however, he does not condemn the dispensation of millions of words by such companies as Google. In Darnton’s own words:
“This is a book about books, an unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present and future. Far from deploring electronic modes of communication, I want to explore the possibilities of aligning them with the power that Johannes Gutenberg unleashed more than five centuries ago.”
In another essay, “The Mysteries of Reading”, Darnton looks at commonplace books — personal collections of favorite quotations from books that have been read, both ones that ennoble and those that annoy. Great ones of the past, like Thomas Jefferson, kept such collections. I wish now and then that I had done the same, nipping beautiful buds as if from rose bushes.
In keeping such personal books, the reader becomes author. Darnton concludes:
“All the keepers of commonplace books . . . read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns.”
Thus, the reader becomes editor.
I love books, and while I use some electronic means of writing and reading, I find the notion of a world in which a beloved book (or even a magazine) can be replaced with a digital volume strange, and perhaps frightening. How shall I caress the spine? How shall I wonder at the lovely binding? Will I be able to see the thumb marks of those who have read this very same book? A mark made by a dropped cigarette ash or a spilled cup of coffee can hardly be shared in a sterile electronic environment. When readers are converted to e-books, what may we take into our beds for an early morning treat?
That being said, to know that I can access whole libraries from my inexpensive computer intrigues me. I have already read one book on my screen, and know that I have also held this very book in my hands at one time.
This book is recommended for both electronic media supporters and print enthusiasts. All librarians should read it.
Now, I have to return Darnton’s work to the library, so another reader can be in touch with a great scholar.