Thursday, July 3, 2014

"The Case for Books": Reading in the Digital Age

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Reading has become increasingly dependent on technology. The book under review by the celebrated historian Professor Robert Darnton is an interesting analysis of the ways in which the advent of digital technology has changed the reading practices of people. The joy of reading the printed book cannot be experienced by one reading the most thrilling novel on kindle. The sight and smell of a book is a delightful experience and only those who savour the joy of reading can understand what we lose by shifting to the digital mode.

Robert Darnton, the historian who gave us such classics of Cultural History as The Business of the Enlightenment, The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History, has been a prolific writer who has published extensively on topics such as Censorship in the Ancien Regime and the attempts made by the Bourbons to police the literary world on the eve of the French Revolution. His approach to the subject essentially derived from the pioneering work of Lucien Febvre who wrote the Coming of the Book, an early attempt at book history. Since then, thanks largely to the efforts of Robert Darnton and Elizabeth Eisenstein, the history of print and the cultural impact of print has emerged as an important area of study, Robert Chartier contributed to the field and he brought "reading practices" to the fore. In a printed book, the codex, the eye is trained to move from left to right and the page is taken in as a unit. In the case of the Old Scrolls which had to be held in the left hand and unscrolled by the right, reading was limited to at best a short paragraph or so. The emergence of Printing made possible a rapid and almost instantaneous dissemination of texts creating the first pre digital Information Revolution. Ann Blair has been writing about how the scholars in the early modern age coped with the explosion of information brought about by print technology. In Too Much to Know Blair has documented the difficult beginning of scholarly apparatus which culminated in the humanists of the sixteenth century inventing the Footnote as a central metaphor of critical historiography as Anthony Grafton has documented in an interesting book.

Robert Darnton, the Librarian of Harvard University, was responsible for the University participating in the Google project of digitizing books from all the important libraries of the World. The Google Book Search which enable historians to search libraries which they could not dream of even seeing in their wildest dreams, is a noble attempt at making knowledge  to everyone everywhere in the Globe. The fears that Google is bebt on turning public assets into private corporate profit has turned out to be unfounded and we are all beholden to Google Book Search for making some of the rare books available at the click of the mouse. Robert Darnton has shown in the book under review the complicated legal issues that had to be negotiated before the Google Book Search took off. Historians from countries such as mine will remain grateful to Google Book Search for making rare books available. India has launched its own version of Google by launching the Digital Library of India which contains a number of interesting books.

The Case for Books is an excellent study of the importance of books in the cultural landscape of the civilized world.

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