The Case for Books

For some time since her operation, and without publication its goal, she had been jotting down without order or pattern, anecdotes gleaned from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, noting down those matters or events which moved her. One day these notes and fragments of thought might form a coherent mosaic and reveal to her her own spiritual autobiography as well as biography of her time.

Frederic Tuten The Green House

During a period when it is reported that people are reading less and less and when it is also said the era of the book is coming to an end, Robert Darton has written a ringing statement in its defense. He regards the invention of the book—a codex of bound pages--as one of the most important technological and cultural achievements in human history. In his The Case for Books, he has also made a compelling case for the practice of keeping a commonplace book.

Darton’s volume consists of a set of essays concerned with the past, present and future of books. In one of the first, he very perceptively comments that: “The staying power of the old-fashioned codex illustrates a general principle in the history of communication: one medium does not displace another, at least not in the short run.”

I believe this principle applies widely—putting a gas station on one corner is not going to put the one across the street out of business. If anything a third gas station will soon spring up on one of the other corners. Television did not put an end to radio, nor will the Web put an end to motion pictures, newspapers or periodicals. Those who fear that the end of the book is near should be ever mindful of this principle.

In another essay, he invites reader to consider the essential properties of a book. “It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex sometime close to the birth of Christ, it has proved to be a marvelous machine—great for packing information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage.”

Like so many other readers, young and old, Darton believes that reading the screen version of a book is inferior to reading it on the printed page. He cites Bill Gates, who has very large and fancy screens and who speaks ardently about the New Web Lifestyle, that when it comes to reading more than four or five pages, he usually prints the document instead of reading it online. Gates says he likes to keep the printed pages with him, to annotate and re-read whenever he wants. And he continues, “…it’s quite a hurdle for technology to match that level of usability.”

In the chapter, The Mysteries of Reading, Darton reviews the history of commonplace books and why they were such important sources of information and ideas in the early days of reading. As it still is for some readers today, reading and writing were considered to be inseparable activities. You read and you took notes or you copied passages and you preserved them in your commonplace book to review and use in future conversation, debate, or writing. It was also a new book, one that reflected your own personality and the unique way you came to interpret the world as seen on the pages of the books you read.

“Commonplacing was like quilting: it produced pictures, some more beautiful than others, but each of them interesting it its own way. They reveal patterns of culture: the segments that went into it, the stitching that connected them, the tears that pulled them apart, and the common cloth of which they were composed.”