The Chronicle Review

What Are Books Good For?

Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review

September 26, 2010

I've been wondering lately when books became the enemy. Scholars have always been people of the book, so it seems wrong that the faithful companion has been put on the defensive. Part of the problem is knowing what we mean exactly when we say "book." It's a slippery term for a format, a technology, a historical construct, and something else as well.

Maybe we need to redefine, or undefine, our terms. I'm struck by the fact that the designation "scholarly book," to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like "acoustic guitar." Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people? Who had the linguistic training to decode them?

In the sense of having been around a long time, the book has a long story to tell, one that might be organized around four epochal events, at least in the West. In the beginning was the invention of writing and its appearance on various materials. The second was the development during the first years of the Christian era of the codex—the thing with pages and a cover—first as a supplement and eventually as a replacement for the older technology of the scroll. The third was what we think of as the Gutenberg moment, the European deployment of movable type, in the 15th century. And the fourth is, of course, the digital revolution in the middle of which we find ourselves today.

When we say "book," we hear the name of a physical object, even if we're thinking outside the codex. The codex bound text in a particular way, organizing words into pages, and as a result literally reframed ideas. The static text image on my desktop is the electronic cousin of late antiquity's reading invention. When my screen is still, or when I arrange text into two or four pages, like so much visual real estate, I am replicating a medieval codex, unbinding its beautifully illuminated pages. Yet reading digitally is also a scroll-like engagement—the fact that we "scroll down" connects us to a reading practice that dates back several millennia. One of the things that book historians study is the change in, and persistence of, reading technologies over time, and what those historians have demonstrated is that good technologies don't eradicate earlier good technologies. They overlap with them—or morph, so that the old and the new may persist alongside yet another development. Think Post-its, printed books, PC's, and iPads, all in the same office cubicle.

The book has a long history, but the concept of the "history of the book" is comparatively new. In the 1950s, two Frenchmen—Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin—brought out L'apparition du livre, or, in English, The Coming of the Book, a work of scholarship that became one of the signs marking the arrival of a new scholarly discipline. Book history's objective was analysis of the function of the book in European culture, and since the 1970s, it has continually expanded its scope, emerging as a trading zone among various disciplines, a rare scholarly arena where the work of librarians, archivists, and scholarly publishers can intersect with the work of traditional scholars and theorists, all members of what the economist Fritz Machlup termed the "knowledge industry."

In the long night of culture, we knowledge workers are restless sleepers. We need dreamers—in technology and science as well as the arts. Right now we are walking through two great dreams that are shaping the future of scholarship, even the very idea of scholarship and the role "the book" should play within it.

Great Dream No. 1 is universal access to knowledge. The cry to open the doors to information is heard everywhere. This dream means many things to many people, but for knowledge workers it means that scholarly books and journals can, and therefore should, be made available to all users. New technologies make that possible for the first time in human history, and as the argument goes, the existence of such possibilities obligates us to use them.

Great Dream No. 2 is the ideal of knowledge building as a self-correcting, collective exercise. Twenty years ago, nobody had Wikipedia, but when it arrived it took over the hearts and laptops of undergraduate students, and then of everyone else in the education business. Professional academic life would be poorer, or at least much slower, without it. The central premise of Wikipedia isn't speed but infinite self-correction, perpetually fine-tuning what we know. In our second dream, we expand our aggregated knowledge, quantitatively and qualitatively.

These two great dreams—the universal and the collective—should sound very familiar, since they are fundamentally the latest entries in Western culture's utopian tradition: Thomas More's Utopia, the Enlightenment's rational distribution of freedoms, Karl Marx's reorganization of labor. But their dark side—the troubling lump in the mattress—is the problem of books themselves, a problem always framed around the physical book and its limitations. The physical book takes up space, it may cost too much to buy and to make, it is heavy, only one person can read it at a time. Books deplete the greenery of our graying planet. Besides, the world and its technologies have replaced book reading with a quick dip into an electronic resource.

Against all that, there are classic arguments in favor of the book. Consider four.

The epistemological argument: Books are the material evidence of what we know. They are knowledge, and through them we discover what we know and who we are.

The cautionary or monitory argument: In their function as record-keepers, books transform history into the present and the present into history. Books cause us to remember and to prevent future generations from forgetting or misunderstanding us and the long collective story of particulars.

The technological argument: No predigital means of transmission has been as effective as the codex. Books don't need batteries. They're cheap in the scheme of things, and remarkably permanent. They travel well. The so-called invention of distance education, in the mid-20th century, was preceded at least 1,500 years earlier by books sent long distances from one early Christian community to another.

The autobiographical argument: Little else can demonstrate as clearly as a shelf of books (or possibly a refrigerator) who we are or imagine ourselves to be. This last argument has been given less respect than it might. Great and fancy libraries astound us, but it's the personal library where a scholar's serious work begins. Lose the personal library, and we become less than we are.

Those are four good arguments. But they don't make my case for books.

In 2009, Robert Darnton, formerly a professor of history at Princeton University and now director of the Harvard University Library, published a volume of more than three decades of essays, titled The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs). Perhaps more than any others, those essays have helped shape the current conversation about books and scholarship, their history and their future. In essence, The Case for Books has naturalized an argument that the Enlightenment's Republic of Letters—with its democratic vista lined with books available to all comers—may be reinvented in the 21st century. Darnton helps us see the connection between "a republic of learning" and a republic of electronic letters. His thoughtful case falls short—how could it not?—of proposing a solution to the competing interests of the market and the user. But we need visions, which by definition lack the fine print that makes the wonderful possible.

The Enlightenment's concerns with spreading light and learning are amply demonstrated in the Darntonian vision of a digital democracy. Both celebrate the luminosity of knowledge, shining forth through the written word. I'm struck, though, by the word "case" in the title of The Case for Books. In arguing his case for books, the author makes reference to cases of historical archives and to the various legal cases surrounding copyright protection.

But there are other relevant uses of the word "case." One would have been familiar to publishers for the 100 years before computers reinvented first printing and then publishing. When the term "case" entered the book trade, at the end of the 19th century, it described what we today might call a binder. The purchaser could use the case to store issues of a journal or other periodical publications. (Twentieth-century English publishers developed the habit of referring to their hardcover books as published in cased editions, as if the text were free-standing and the pages likely to wander off on their own.) Books had been bound in leather for centuries, but for 19th-century English printers engaged in mass production for a general audience, they were encased between what rare-book dealers and some publishers refer to as the top and bottom boards of a book. To the working publisher circa 1950, the case for books was not the Darntonian vision of the ultimate digital repository but a simple covering, a protective armature.

There are earlier uses of the word "case" as well. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an earlier case from an Elizabethan devotional tract that warned, "Every mans case is the skinne of a sinner." The pious writer meant that we are not only sinners, we also are containers stuffed with sin—sort of sin sausages. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Egyptian queen bids her servants leave Marc Antony's corpse at the Monument: "Come, away," she tells them. "This case of that huge spirit now is cold." Cleopatra's words confirm the distinction between the box that contains our life and the life within it.

Is the book the physical, printed text in its protective case, or is it the knowledge that the hidden text is always prepared to reveal? The answer, of course, is that the book is both. And because the book is and is not the form in which it is presented, it can do its work between boards of calf, or morocco, or Kivar, or from the booklike window of an iPad or a Nook.

So what are books good for? My best answer is that books produce knowledge by encasing it. Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them through the limitations of space into thinking usable by others. In 1959, C.P. Snow threw down the challenge of "two cultures," the scientific and the humanistic, pursuing their separate, unconnected lives within developed societies. In the new-media ecology of the 21st century, we may not have closed that gap, but the two cultures of the contemporary world are the culture of data and the culture of narrative. Narrative is rarely collective. It isn't infinitely expandable. Narrative has a shape and a temporality, and it ends, just as our lives do. Books tell stories. Scholarly books tell scholarly stories.

Storytelling is central to the work of the narrative-driven disciplines­—the humanities and the nonquantitative social sciences—and it is central to the communicative pleasures of reading. Even argument is a form of narrative. Different kinds of books are, of course, good for different things. Some should be created only for download and occasional access, as in the case of most reference projects, which these days are born digital or at least given dual passports. But scholarly writing requires narrative fortitude, on the part of writer and reader. There is nothing wiki about the last set of Cambridge University Press monographs I purchased, and in each I encounter an individual speaking subject.

Each single-author book is immensely particular, a story told as only one storyteller could recount it. Scholarship is a collagist, building the next iteration of what we know book by book. Stories end, and that, I think, is a very good thing. A single authorial voice is a kind of performance, with an audience of one at a time, and no performance should outstay its welcome. Because a book must end, it must have a shape, the arc of thought that demonstrates not only the writer's command of her or his subject but also that writer's respect for the reader. A book is its own set of bookends.

Even if a book is published or disseminated in digital form, freed from its materiality, that shaping case of the codex is the ghost in the knowledge-machine. We are the case for books. Our bodies hold the capacity to generate thousands of ideas, perhaps even a couple of full-length monographs, and maybe a trade book or two. If we can get them right, books are luminous versions of our ideas, bound by narrative structure so that others can encounter those better, smarter versions of us on the page or screen. Books make the case for us, for the identity of the individual as an embodiment of thinking in the world. The heart of what even scholars do is the endless task of making that world visible again and again by telling stories, complicated, nuanced, subtle stories that reshape us daily so that new forms of knowledge can shine out.

William Germano is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. A longer version of this essay was presented as a talk at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses this summer.