Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Darnton on Books

I just bought Robert Darnton's The Case for Books. Past, Present and Future (New York: Public Affairs, 2009). It consists of a selection of essays on "the book" and "the Internet," written between 1982 and 2009. Most of them are form between 2000 and 2009, however.

The collection is presented as "an unashamed apology for the printed word, past, present, and future," which does not deplore "electronic modes of communication" (vii). I have read most of the articles already, and I mainly bought it for the early ones, like "What is the History of Book" from 1982 and "Extraordinary Commonplaces" from 2000, which are not easily obtainable in other form.

Only the Introduction is strictly speaking new. What I liked most about it is a quote from a letter of Niccolo Perotti to Francesco Guarnerio written in 1471, (i.e. two decades after Gutenberg):

"My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently bbrought to us from Germany. In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year. ... It was for this reason that I was led to hope that within a short time we would have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn't be a single work which could not be procured ... Yet—oh false and all too human thoughts—I see that things turned out quite differently [...] now that everyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, be erased from all books. and even when they write something worthwhile they twist and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books [...]"

The Internet did not change all that much.

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