I have been invited to so many conferences on “The Death of the Book” during the past decade that I think books must be very much alive. The death notices remind me of one of my favorite graffiti, inscribed in the men's room of the Firestone Library at Princeton University:

God is dead.


Then, added in another hand:

Nietzsche is dead.


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.

Digitize, Democratize

Most of my own research has been in a field only recently recognized as a new academic discipline: the history of the book. My work has taken me from historical research to involvement in electronic publishing ventures to the directorship of the Harvard University Libraries. While confronting the problems of the present, I often find myself thinking back to the world of books as it was experienced by the founding fathers and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Despite their very different origins, Franklin, Jefferson, Voltaire and Rousseau considered themselves citizens of a common republic of letters, a cultural realm without boundaries—political, disciplinary or linguistic—and open to everyone who could read and write. That, of course, was a utopian vision limited to a tiny elite—not only were most people in the 18th century illiterate, they couldn't afford to buy books even if they could read.

Today, however, we have the means to make that utopia a reality. In many societies, despite enormous inequalities, ordinary people not only read but have access to a huge quantity of reading matter through the Internet. I would not minimize the digital divide, which separates the computerized world from the rest, nor would I underestimate the importance of traditional books. But the future is digital. And I believe that if we can resolve the current challenges facing books in ways that favor ordinary citizens, we can create a digital republic of letters. Much of my book is devoted to this premise and can be summarized in two words: digitize and democratize.

Easily said, I know. Today's publishers, booksellers, authors and librarians struggle against formidable barriers. Anyone who has sweated over a balance sheet or listened to the shoptalk of sales reps is unlikely to have much patience for utopian dreaming. Thus, it helps to put the book's current challenges in perspective. For example, I'm now editing the diary of a sales rep who spent five months on the road in France in 1778, flogging books from horseback. I often think of him when I am challenged to produce a business plan for one of my electronic projects—his horse never made it back to the home office. Futuristic fantasies will not get you far in the hard world of publishing today, but it also helps to know how tough the business was in earlier information ages.


While I believe readers and professionals alike can take heart and gain perspective by learning about their predecessors, most of my book concerns current issues and the way their resolutions are likely to shape the information landscape for the foreseeable future. The issues facing the book are urgent, I believe, not merely because book professionals must find a way through the immediate financial crises that plague them, but because the publishing landscape is shifting under our feet. We are living in one of those rare moments in history when things may come apart and be put back together again in ways that will determine the future for decades or more, despite the endless innovations of technology.

That is why, you'll notice, I have devoted so much of the book to Google's efforts. Google's recent attempts to digitize the great bulk of the books in the greatest research libraries of the world and then to market its digital treasure could have a profound effect on the future of the digital republic of letters. Will the fate of the digital republic of letters be determined by the laws of the marketplace or will there be provisions to protect the public good? A court in New York will soon decide, and its decision could have a profound effect on the rules and the way the game is played in the world of books.

I realize, of course, that there will be other decisive moments and other contending forces, and that I may not be able to accurately see the future. But whether or not you agree with my assessment of Google, I hope you will find it, and the history offered in the book, useful. By putting today's issues in historical context, I hope to both encourage a broad view of the current situation and to stimulate debate.

And, yes, I chose to do this by bringing my reflections together in a printed codex, a fact that should not be overlooked. A book about books: the subject suits the form, but is meant to open up our understanding of new modes of communication, not to lament the passing of a medium that has not died—and never will.

In The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, Robert Darnton, a pioneer in the field of the history of the book, offers an in-depth examination of the book from its earliest beginnings to its changing—some even say threatened—place in culture, commerce and the academy. But to predict the death of the book is to ignore its centuries-long history of survival. The following are some of Darnton's observations.
The Future
Whatever the future may be, it will be digital. The present is a time of transition, when printed and digital modes of communication coexist and new technology soon becomes obsolete. Already we are witnessing the disappearance of familiar objects: the typewriter, now consigned to antique shops; the postcard, a curiosity; the handwritten letter, beyond the capacity of most young people, who cannot write in cursive script; the daily newspaper, extinct in many cities; the local bookshop, replaced by chains, which themselves are threatened by Internet distributors like Amazon. And the library? It can look like the most archaic institution of all. Yet its past bodes well for its future, because libraries were never warehouses of books. They have always been and always will be centers of learning. Their central position in the world of learning makes them ideally suited to mediate between the printed and the digital modes of communication. Books, too, can accommodate both modes. Whether printed on paper or stored in servers, they embody knowledge, and their authority derives from a great deal more than the technology that went into them.
Bits become degraded over time. Documents may get lost in cyberspace, owing to the obsolescence of the medium in which they are encoded. Hardware and software become extinct at a distressing rate. Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all texts “born digital” belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old. We have lost 80% of all silent films and 50% of all films made before World War II. Nothing preserves texts better than ink imbedded in paper, especially paper manufactured before the 19th century, except texts written in parchment or engraved in stone. The best preservation system ever invented was the old-fashioned, pre-modern book.
Reading… and Writing
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it, and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
Voltaire toyed with his texts so much that booksellers complained. As soon as they sold one edition of a work, another would appear, featuring additions and corrections by the author. Customers protested. Some even said that they would not buy an edition of Voltaire's complete works—and there were many, each different from the others—until he died, an event eagerly anticipated by retailers throughout the book trade. Piracy was so pervasive in early modern Europe that bestsellers could not be blockbusters as they are today. Instead of being produced in huge numbers by one publisher, they were printed simultaneously in many small editions by many publishers, each racing to make the most of a market unconstrained by copyright. Few pirates attempted to produce accurate counterfeits of the original editions. They abridged, expanded, and reworked texts as they pleased, without worrying about the authors' intentions.
I want to write an electronic book. Here is how my fantasy takes shape. 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 the topmost layer, which will be written like an ordinary monograph. If it satisfies them, they can print it out, bind it (binding machines can now be attached to computers and printers), and study it at their convenience in the form of a custom-made paperback. 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, everything I can provide to give the fullest possible understanding of my subject. In the end, they will make the subject theirs, because they will find their own paths through it, reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic links may lead.
Despite the proliferation of biographies of great writers, the basic conditions of authorship remain obscure for most periods of history. At what point did writers free themselves from the patronage of wealthy noblemen and the state in order to live by their pens? What was the nature of a literary career, and how was it pursued? How did writers deal with publishers, printers, booksellers, reviewers, and one another? Until those questions are answered, we will not have a full understanding of the transmission of texts. Voltaire was able to manipulate secret alliances with pirate publishers because he did not depend on writing for a living. A century later, Zola proclaimed that a writer's independence came from selling his prose to the highest bidder. How did this transformation take place?
The Book Trade
It may seem hopeless to conceive of book history as a single subject, to be studied from a comparative perspective across the whole range of historical disciplines. But books themselves do not respect limits either linguistic or national. They have often been written by authors who belonged to an international republic of letters, composed by printers who did not work in their native tongue, sold by booksellers who operated across national boundaries, and read in one language by readers who spoke another. Books also refuse to be contained within the confines of a single discipline when treated as objects of study. Neither history nor literature nor economics nor sociology nor bibliography can do justice to all aspects of the life of a book. By its very nature, therefore, the history of books must be international in scale and interdisciplinary in method. But it need not lack conceptual coherence, because books belong to circuits of communication that operate in consistent patterns, however complex they may be. By unearthing those circuits, historians can show that books do not merely recount history; they make it.