In “The Case for Books” (2009), Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton questions the future of books in a rapidly digitized world.
He knows that they will never be truly obsolete, though they are transforming. In an age when e-books threaten to supersede printed ones, when Google is scanning and making literature available online, when Kindle allows long-form reading on a digital platform, and when many publications are sinking into bankruptcy, how much longer can readers hold on to good old-fashioned paper?
“Digitization is transforming the communication systems of the modern age without replacing print,” consoles Darnton, noting that the death of the book is predicted all the time, but more books appear in print each year.
“Soon one million new titles will be published annually throughout the world. The codex — a book you read by turning pages as opposed to the volumen, a scroll that you unroll to read — is one of the greatest inventions of all time. Two thousand years old and still going strong, stronger than ever in print form.”
Darnton’s own book is part history of the form, part plan for the future. He argues that the value of the book cannot be surpassed, though digitization has its rewards.
“In an e-book, you can provide endless supplementary material in various formats — archives, photos, films, and hyperlinks to other sources.”
Next year, Darnton will publish a book with Harvard University Press about Parisian street songs. “The reader of the print edition will be able to tune in to the online material and hear the songs sung to their original tunes, while following text on the page.”
But this library leader also has concerns about the difficulties of preserving digital works: “Their hardware and software will become obsolete; they are fragile; their digits can unravel, and their metadata may not be adequate to locate them, years hence, in cyberspace.”
Darnton agrees that the physicality of books provides irreplaceable pleasure, saying, “They delight the eye, feel good to the touch, and even smell good.” He tells of a French producer of e-books who “offered its customers a sticker that they can put on their computers and scratch to produce a musty smell like that of an old volume.”
How’s that for staying power? And, of course, there’s that child wizard.
“Publishers have learned from Harry Potter that there is a public out there, eager to devour a well-told tale.”