The Fate of the Book in the Digital Age: A Conversation with Robert Darnton
Thinking in Public
March 13, 2012
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
What is the fate of the book in the digital age? This is a pressing question, not only for librarians, but for all of us who care about the book. And who better to talk about this than the librarian of one of the world’s greatest libraries? Robert Darnton was educated at Harvard University and Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. There he did his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1964 and then joined the staff of the New York Times as a reporter. Later he became a fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He taught at Princeton University from 1968 until 2007, when he became the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard.
Robert Darnton, it’s an honor to welcome you to Thinking in Public.
Darnton: Well, thank you for having me.
Mohler: Now, I have known of your name for some time, especially as related to the world of libraries and also to French history, but my curiosity was especially aroused by your new book, The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future, one of your most recent works. You are heavily invested in the question of the future of the book, especially in a digital age, and in a time when, frankly, they’re many librarians who seem reluctant to even talk about this, you’re not reluctant at all.
Darnton: No, I’m not. In fact, I confess to being down right enthusiastic about the digital age, but you know that doesn’t mean that I don’t love books. I’m someone who’s spent almost all of my scholarly life in the 18th century. I love old books, rare books. I like the feel of the paper and the excitement of contact with objects that are that old, so it’s not as if—just speaking for myself—I have any lack of love for the traditional book. But, you know, I don’t think that that excludes the excitement about the possibility of new kinds of books. So I guess you could say that I’m someone who doesn’t see this as an either/or proposition—you know, the digital verses the analog—but, rather, I see the present as a time of transition in which we’re moving toward the future that pretty far away will be heavily digital. Although, I don’t think that the so-called codex—that is a book that is printed on paper whose papers you turn—that the printed codex will ever be extinct. I think it’s just too great a machine, too great an invention ever to disappear.
Mohler: Even someone like Bill Gates, who, needless to say, is an enthusiast for the digital age, has also affirmed that he would rather read any document of length, certainly any book, in a paper form, in the codex as you described. And, I think most of us have that same experience.
Darnton: Yes, I think that is true. Now it could be that as e-books or e-readers are designed that they will improve and that the actual experience of reading them could be more pleasant for someone. You see people reading on e-readers quite a lot; myself, I just can’t imagine a more satisfactory experience than reading a book that you hold in your hands, whose papers you turn, and you can mark-up if you own it and you want to indicate certain passages that matter to you. I think the cover-to-cover reading is a kind of reflective activity that is very deeply satisfying for a lot of people. And, in fact, I believe in slow reading. You know there are courses on how to read fast (speed reading); myself, I think we need to slow down to enjoy books and to take time to let our imaginations wander. So that style of reading is a kind that has been connected with the traditional printed book, and I think it is fair to say that the new electronic readers are perpetuating a new kind of reading and that there are losses involved in that. So, I think that when I say I’m excited about the digital future, I’ve got a lot of misgivings about it as well and I see the affects in some of my students who, for example, never read printed newspapers. Not a single one of them reads a daily newspaper; they all get their news online. But news online is a very different thing from news in which you can look at page one and see the distribution of different kinds of type and headlines arrangements that are in effect mapping what happened for you, the reader, in a way that has proved its worth over a long period.
Mohler: I was a newspaper editor, and right now I have newsprint all over my fingers because I’ve just gone through about seven daily newspapers because I affirm just the thing you said. I do a daily analysis of the news and, of course, I’m looking at the aggregators on the Internet, the search engines and all the rest, but that’s nothing like the experience of knowing how an editor and a copy editor and a reporter and others were involved in the conspiracy to deliver a newspaper. Where what’s above the fold tells you a great deal. Whether it’s to the left or the right, there are certain columns that just in terms of physical layout imply their importance or lack of importance by where they are.
Darnton: Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I sat in several times on conferences at the New York Times for laying out page one and there would be maybe twenty editors, each of whom is trying to get as many column inches as he or she possibly can get on page one and, just as you say, they want their story as far to the right (the lead section) as they can or the off-lead on the left as they can or the off-lead on left; they want it above the fold, they want a certain kind of headline. And although readers may not be aware of this struggle that goes into the design of page one on any newspaper, any day, they nonetheless, I think, pick up signs, signals. Their eyes are educated as to relative importance of things and so even if they don’t know what a Q-head is, when they see the headline slanted slightly as opposed to being straight up and down, they, I think, semi-consciously realize that’s going to be a news story that has a lot of interpretation in it and less hard news, so to speak. Well, all of this gets lost online, I think, and it is a serious loss.
Mohler: Well, it is and I wonder where that situates colleges now and young people, and few people are in the position to make that evaluation as you are. As the head of the libraries at Harvard University, you have some of the best and brightest young people in the entire planet who are there on your campus. How do you evaluate their engagement with reading and then with the codex, that is, with the printed book?
Darnton: Well, you know, I teach a course on the history of books at Harvard. It goes from Gutenberg to the Internet, and we begin actually with the Gutenberg Bible. We have a copy of the Bible, and I bring it into the seminar room and plop it down on the table and invite the students, not just to stand back and admire it, but actually to turn its pages and to ask questions about the way the pages are designed, the use of lubrication as it’s called—that is, hand-painted letters that are inserted in special places. I ask them, for example, “What do you make of the page numbers?” And then they notice that there aren’t any page numbers because Gutenberg was trying to imitate the manuscript and so on. Well, it doesn’t take many experiences like that before the students suddenly wake up to the tremendous power of the traditional printed book to convey messages that is independent of the actual text itself—I mean the words in the text—and they begin to understand that books are objects whose very design is physical quality, whose feel actually conveys meaning. And I found that these are students who have grown up, some of them with television, all of them with handheld devices—smart phones and the rest of it—they spent so much time in this electronic world that when they begin to see that the printed world has a capacity to communicate meaning that they get very excited about it and that, in fact, there’s a tendency now among students to rediscover the printed word and to be committed to it with a lot more force than probably their parents were, parents who just took it for granted. So, I think we’re undergoing a kind of renaissance of understanding of the printed word, which is a consequence of this immersion in the electronic word. In other words, I see a kind of mutuality and reinforcement of things instead of a zero sum game in which all of this electronic communication is simply wiping out the communication that was possible through Gutenberg’s invention.
Mohler: You know there’s something that’s just almost mystical about holding one of those old books, as you were just discussing in terms of the Gutenberg Bible or even something of less historical consequence. I enjoy from my personal library pulling out a contemporaneous pamphlet from the time of Martin Luther, one of his pamphlets and treatises and putting it in a student’s hand and just reminding them there once was a time when this was the only way to gain this information and, frankly, there once was a time when holding this could get you killed if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. And you just wonder: How many human hands have held this material object? How many human eyes have scanned it and with such urgency? I, the other day, put a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in a student’s hands and I said, “You realize that in the pre-Internet age, this was how you actually propagandized. You had to put the material in someone’s hand.” I fear that a lot of contemporary students, modern students, who’ve grown up in the digital age just have never had that experience.
Darnton: I agree. I think that you probably felt an extraordinary tingling feeling in your fingertips when you held this…. from the 16th century and you can’t get that sensation with an electronic book, it’s true. In fact, there is a French publisher who did some market research—he’s trying to publish books on the Internet in electronic form—and he asked students what it is that they missed when they read an electronic book and what they especially appreciated in printed books, and the first thing they all said was the smell. And it’s true. Old books—I’m sure you’ve had that experience—they do have a certain smell, an aura. So he found a chemist who designed a kind of scratch pad that he gave to people who bought his books. They could put it on the computer, scratch it and it would give off a smell that smelled a little bit like an old book. So you know the way that old books work on our senses does have a lot of mystery about it, but, you know, it’s easy to sound romantic about this. I think that there are also great gains in electronic books and, in fact, I would go so far as to argue that we have a kind of case of collective false consciousness that people imagine that there is a technological spectrum with the analog on one end and the digital on the other as if they are opposed and are enemies. In fact, I think now what’s happening is that there are a lot of ways in which the electronic book compliments the printed book and vice-versa, and that they’re working together so that this period of transition from a strictly world of prints to one of electronic communication is a world in which the whole landscape is becoming richer and more complicated.
Mohler: I really appreciated something you wrote in the New York Review of Books some time back when you pointed out you’ve seen so many conferences advertised with something with a title like “The Death of the Book,” that it makes you more sure that the book is actually alive.
Darnton: That’s right. Well, just being facetious, there is a joke among publishers in which one publisher asks another, “What was the first book?” And the answer is, “The Bible.” Then the publisher says, “What was the second book?” And the answer is, “The Death of the Book.” You know, publishers feeling that they’ve been through this forever. You know more books are published in print each year than the year before, so in this year, 2012, there will be published more than one million new books—printed books—and that’s astonishing. So, no, the printed book is not about to die; it’s flourishing more than it ever did before.
Mohler: One of the things I think also many people don’t realize is that books have never been more affordable than they are now. The average Victorian resident of London for example could buy pamphlets, but rarely a book. In fact, I have an entire collection of prize books from private schools in Great Britain where you had gifts given as academic prizes. These beautiful, leather, full-tree often, leather books that were given to thirteen and fourteen year olds and became prized possession for the rest of their lives.
Darnton: Yes. Well I’d love to see your library. It sounds as though you have quite a collection.
Mohler: I’ve been working at it since I was seventeen, which leads me to say something else that I think is also missing from so many and that is that when I was really young, thirteen/fourteen years old—maybe even younger than that, ten or twelve—and we would go on a family vacation—I realize that this may incite the idea that I need psychiatric treatment among some, but I would sneak a couple of the editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica under the front seats of the car, so that on the trip I could pull them out and read them. And I realize that I would never go to a printed encyclopedia now, but back when I was an adolescent, I mean, that was an entrance into a whole new world. You just start with capital B, little A, and the next think you know, you’re discovering everything from insects to geometry to literature.
Darnton: But that’s remarkable. You were actually reading through in the alphabetical order.
Mohler: I just took it on as a project and started reading. And, frankly, it was a great cure for boredom.
Darnton: Right. But there wasn’t much connection between one article and another, I assume.
Mohler: No, and I think it was kind of the equivalent of kids today browsing the net. I was just browsing the pages.
Darnton: Yes. Well that’s the way the great encyclopedia…worked. And there were then, so to speak, links, not electronic links, but there were cross-references from one article to the other. And once the reader fell upon one of these cross-references, then suddenly connections began to emerge and they were very much the philosophy of the Enlightenment, even though the article itself might be quite un-enlightened—you know, it might represent traditional Catholic dogma. But the connection to some other article could be quite insidious and that’s where the sort of reading between the lines, seeing connections, reading creatively in order to let your imagination roam really bore fruit.
Mohler: I am reassured by Professor Darnton’s confidence that the book will survive. And not only that, but there will be multiple formats for reading that will include e-reading and the continuation of the relevance of the codex (the printed book). My guess is that most of us are going to find ourselves sorting these things out on an individual basis. We’re going to be looking at different ways of reading and, perhaps, different ways of reading different kinds of books, but when it comes to the printed word, it turns out that it’s more important than ever before.
Professor Darnton, when you consider the book, I often think about the fact that I am an avid e-reader. I didn’t expect to be, but I am. Part of that is just forced upon me by circumstances, but, nonetheless, I have hundreds of books on my Kindle—I actually use the Kindle app on an iPad because of my eyesight—but I don’t think I’m buying any fewer of the printed books. And so I am looking at it and all of the sudden realizing, I think I read different genres of literature, different kinds of literature in different ways. Very contemporary things, I think, will not last long, I tend to read on the Kindle, but anything that is going to have any permanence, I want it in the printed form. I wonder, as a librarian at Harvard, as you look at the maybe symbiosis between the digital and the printed book, how do you see this kind of falling out now?
Darnton: Well, I agree with you. I think that a lot of readers use their electronic e-readers for a certain kind of reading. I mean, often it’s a popular best-selling novel or an adventure story of some kind that they might want to read while they’re traveling or if they’re on the beach, but that’s quite different if they want to read a book that will really seriously challenge their imaginations and make them think hard about something. Those books, I think, people tend to prefer to buy in print and to mark up. A lot of people, myself for example, we read with pencils in our hands and it’s great fun to write in the end pages of books—you know those blank pages at the end where you can make notes to yourself and jot down page numbers where you found something especially interesting. It’s something like the practice of keeping a common place book, which was very widespread in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries where people would read something and then they would copy out passages that they thought were relevant to something that mattered to them. Well, probably, that’s what you do when you decide, “Oh, this book I’d rather have in print,” as opposed to that one which you’d be satisfied to read on your Kindle. Is that how it works for you?
Mohler: I think it is. I do notice sometimes, though, that there is a greater loss in terms of the digital book experience than I expected. For instance, the physicality of the book allows me to remember things that I tend not to remember so well in the digital book because I don’t think I have the same multi-sensory kind of experience. The second thing is—you mentioned the end pages—in a printed book I write on those end pages where I bought the book and then I write a record of where I read it because I’m traveling all the time. And I find that actually that helps me to remember even what’s on page 113 sometimes because the book just kind of falls open to the places that are important to me, which the e-reader does not.
Darnton: That’s fascinating. So it’s as if your memory fixes certain moments and certain places where you came upon a passage and it makes it stick in your memory in a way that the e-experience doesn’t.
Mohler: Absolutely. The physicality of the book is tied to, I think, all of my senses in a way that the digital book is not. Now there are also gains on the other side. A recent book that came out that was tied—a book in terms of events after World War II and the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis—tied to hyperlinks with embedded video and I realize that if I were considering this period of history for the first time, this is an incredibly rich experience. It’s just a different experience.
Darnton: Yes. Well, you know, the last book I wrote is called Poetry and the Police, and it’s about the way poems, especially poems written to music, traveled in mid-18th century Paris. The basic idea is in a semi-literature society people can’t read in the first place and they, at that time, didn’t have access to real newspapers, papers with news in them, but every day Parisians are improvising new words to old tunes, which everyone carries in their heads. So I’ve come upon collections of these songs, hundreds and hundreds of them, scrapbooks with songs, new verses written on bits of paper. And I’m convinced that this was one of—maybe the most important way for news to travel two to three hundred years ago, but it traveled accompanied by sound, by music. And the question then became what do they actually sound like? Well they didn’t have music written with them, of course; they just had the word, but they would say, “Sung to the tune of.” And then I found some manuscripts where you could look up a title and they would give you the musical annotation, so a friend of mine, who is a cabaret singer in Paris, actually recorded the songs to the tunes which long ago disappeared from the collective memory, but with the words that were improvised at the time. And this is available as an electronic supplement to the printed book. In other words, you can hear history. There’s a dimension of sound in the past that can be recovered thanks to the new media, and I think that’s thrilling that we can do things now that were simply not possible when we were restricted to the printed word.
Mohler: The Chronicle of Higher Education recently has run a series of articles, very much in this same subject area, and one of the things that kind of surprised me in this as I was looking at reports coming from university campuses is that even as Apple has announced a new thrust with the iPad in terms of textbooks and even as the Kindle is making inroads and all the rest, students find, evidently, difficulty with a good many subject areas in actually reading digitally rather than reading by the book. It seems to me that perhaps some of this is still falling out such that the e-reader is obviously not the answer to everything.
Darnton: Well, I think it’s not the answer to everything and that we may be a little too quick to jump to conclusions. I think we have to be patient. I really do believe we’re going through a transitional period and that the technology is moving very fast and at a slower pace is reading and learning, so it’s hard to know how things will shake out. But I feel that those of us who teach in universities and colleges—and I would say also in K-12 schools—that we have a responsibility to help students read critically, to help them be critical about the sources that they are using and to ask questions that they might not ask if everything just seemed like a tweet or a snippet or one of these very short messages that they would get from friends. I think that kind of messaging may be fine for getting a communication across to somebody who’s going to pick you up near a bus stop or something, but it’s not adequate for serious reading. So there’s a lot of education, I think, that has to be done to get especially young people to read more reflectively, more critically and to get even greater pleasure, I would say, from reading.
Mohler: I would like to shift just a little bit from the book to the houses in which some of the most important books are kept and that is libraries. I really enjoy taking people to a library. I took my own son, a college freshman, into the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library for the first time a few weeks ago. And if you just walk in and you recognize something like that’s just—just an incredible place to be. The British Library, especially the old, original British Library, the Trinity College in Dublin, these spectacular libraries that are almost sanctuaries to the book. When I think of the scale of your responsibility at Harvard, in an article you did write for the New York Review of Books back in 2010, you mentioned that the library at Harvard began in 1638 with the 400 books that were owned by John Harvard, you’ve now accumulated—and, of course, this is now rather old, about a year and a half old—you had accumulated 17 million volumes and 400 million manuscript and archival items scattered through 45,000 distinct collections, and I think that also means and more than 70 discrete libraries. You are about as heavily invested in the library as any institution on earth I can imagine.
Darnton: Well, it’s true yes. The Harvard library system is simply astonishing. It is not just the oldest library in this country, but it’s by far the largest university library in the world, so it’s one of the five or six greatest libraries. And it’s enormously complex, but it works. And one of the reasons it works is that the librarians are so good because it’s not enough to have 17 plus million volumes, you need people who can guide readers to the pertinent book or article, or database now. And the whole thing is a human network as well as a beautiful sanctuary of books. In my view, libraries never were warehouses of books; I think of them as the kind of nerve center of a university, in the case of university libraries. That’s way they are almost always situated in the center of the campus. And now they’re changing in their function. I mean, fortunately, the great architecture that you mentioned remains and so we have some splendid reading rooms at Harvard, but at the same time, readers are using them differently and I see the library now as becoming much more a center of intellectual sociability. Students and faculty go there and instead of just sitting silently bent over a book as used to be the style, we have special spaces where they can have conversations and you see students often working in groups with a laptop in front of them and few books scattered among them, talking and reading and interacting in a way, for me, was unthinkable when I was a student.
Mohler: Not to mention not allowed.
Darnton: That’s right. Well there were two big taboos, of course: you couldn’t talk and you couldn’t eat or drink in the library. But now we’ve installed a café in the most popular of the undergraduate libraries and it’s open 24-hours a day and they’re there taking coffee breaks and talking with one another and then going off into the stacks and finding books or plugging in their laptops or listening to recordings of operas or watching videos. I mean, it’s really a very active place and the librarians are active in it. That is, you know, they’re helping the students find their way to what is really relevant because it is not enough now if you’re working on a paper, a research paper, you can’t just go to Google and expect that you will find what you really need. I mean, Google can give you a start, but to actually pursue a line of investigation through complicated sources, that’s difficult. And it’s an acquired skill, and it requires help on the part of the librarians. So if you put all this together, I think that libraries today, especially university libraries, have acquired a new life and that far from being, you know, vestigial or out-of-date, not to mention becoming obsolete, they are really wonderful pulsating centers of activity and that’s encouraging.
I think it’s true also of public libraries of all kinds and in the case of the New York Public Library—I’m a trustee of the New York Public Library, so I’ve been following this a lot—not only do we have the great Rose Reading Room, which you admired, but also we have 87 branch libraries and they are being used more than ever. Partly by people who are looking for jobs because you can’t find a job in the want ads in newspapers; they’ve all gone online. And a lot of people without jobs don’t have computers, don’t have access to the Internet; they go to their neighborhood library. So libraries are adapting to this new world, and they’re more important than ever.
Mohler: Well, I think libraries have always been an attraction, and it’s hard for me to imagine that many people, even those who do not yet have a deep infection of the romance of the book, nonetheless, when they pass by a library, they’re almost all drawn in at least to take a look and to imagine this intentional collection, not just a mass of books, but an intentional collection, an array of books.
When I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation, I didn’t have any choice but to work in the library because the information was captive to it. And I think that is one of the major differences I see is that the library is no longer a place where most of the data within it is captive. Students can get a lot of that data elsewhere; it’s available to them. What I was tied to in terms of a research office, they’re not tied to in the same way, but it is the locus of the intelligence of so much of the institution and its work.
Darnton: Yes, I really do agree and that’s why I think this project that some of us are devoting almost all of our time to now, which is the attempt to create a digital public library of America, is so important. Because this way, thanks to the Internet, we can make the great treasures of our research libraries available to the American people, in fact to everyone in the world, free of charge, so that the smallest community college in, say, North Dakota or Alabama will have a library that I think will someday be as great as the Library of Congress at the fingertips of its students free. The digital age is really wonderful in that respect because people used to walk past the great libraries such as Widener here at Harvard and not be able to penetrate into it because it was reserved for students and the faculty. Well, very soon, its entire holdings will be available to the American people along with those of the other great research libraries and that I think will transform the whole landscape of learning in a way that will enrich people’s lives beyond anything we’ve been able to imagine.
Mohler: You are not only a librarian but an acclaimed historian and I admire your willingness to look to the future as you did in your book, The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future. If you were to update that argument finally, Professor Darnton, would you look to the future, how do you think the experience of reading is likely to be different in the days ahead?
Darnton: Well, it’s a very good question and I may not have an adequate answer for it, but I truly believe that the big difference will be the possibility of leaping from one kind of source to another kind of source so that you can be interested in something on a page and click onto a related argument either in another book or you might want to see an object that had been behind closed doors in a museum somewhere, but that you can now call onto your computer screen. That is, you can combine experiences, as you were saying earlier, different sensory experiences in a way that just wasn’t possible before. So, in other words, I see an opening up of access to the entirety of our cultural heritage that will be possible through the Internet and through this new kind of reading. Now exactly how it’s going to work out, I don’t know. It’s hard enough to understand the past, so I don’t pretend to predict the future, but we see that tendency already at work.
Mohler: I appreciate so much your stewardship as the librarian there at Harvard University and director of its libraries and also as professor. And I want to thank you especially today, Professor Darnton, for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Darnton: Well, thank you for having me.
Mohler: Those of us who care about books care about the continuation of the printed book. We also care about the continued stewardship of libraries. These great and historic repositories of learning are not just, well, archeological sites about an age of reading that once existed, but they have to continue to be an important part of the coalescence of intelligence even in the post-modern age, even in the digital age. Where it turns out that even as most of us may be able to carry a small library on our electronic devise, we still need the libraries we go to visit that are the invaluable repositories of learning, including collections of those books dating way back to the days of old.
As Professor Darnton has noted, all of this talk about the death of the book is itself something of an indication of the fact that the book survives. The importance of the book is still rather unquestioned in economic terms, even as publishers are trying to figure out exactly how the landscape of the book publishing industry will turn out in the future. Amazon.com tells us that when it comes to their best-selling titles, they now routinely sell more digital editions than they do copies of the printed book. At the same time, when you look at the total volume of a group like Amazon.com or like your local bookseller (if indeed you’re fortunate enough to have a local bookseller), what you come to see is that the printed book continues to survive. And, of course, there is a romance, there is an attachment, even an emotional attachment, to the book, the printed book, that goes beyond anything that is likely to be attached to a digital edition. As I mentioned to Professor Darnton, I find that there are certain forms of reading that I do well on an e-reader, even can annotate well with the highlighting feature, especially things having to do with current events, also the kind of literature that I think will be of more passing than lasting value.
The other thing about the e-reader that is incredibly important to me is that as I’m traveling or as I’m distant from my own physical library, I have access to books that otherwise I would simply have to go back to see by traveling in order to obtain them again or I’d have to go to a library to find them or I’d have to buy another copy. I can carry hundreds of books in a library that fits within my briefcase in digital form. I’m able to land in a city and find out that I need to have a book for a project and I’m able to download it in a matter of minutes—at least a good many of them.
Professor Darnton, in terms of his larger project beyond the libraries of Harvard University, is very involved in building a national digital library. The idea that there could be something like that on the model of what the French are now undertaking is a matter of great encouragement and the most encouraging thing to me is, as Professor Darnton makes clear, it’s not as if it’s a choice of one or the other. It’s not as if in the final analysis we’re going to decide as a culture between the printed book and the digital edition. Both will have a future. Both will have their own roles to play in terms of how we read and assimilate information.
Going back to the earlier point in the conversation, the physicality of the printed book continues to be an important issue and, as Professor Darnton mentioned, the physicality of the newspaper that actually is embedded with a good deal of information. People who wonder why I insist on holding a newspaper and reading a printed edition do not understand that it is embedded with all kinds of information that is in the print, in the layout on the page, in the typefaces that are used and many other things. Professor Darnton, by the way, has a great deal of credibility speaking to this since he spent time immediately after he was a Rhodes Scholar finishing his Ph.D. at Oxford University serving as a reporter for the New York Times. His father and brother were editors and reporters for the New York Times. He understands the information age and he understands the importance of information. The stewardship that he holds as the Director of the Harvard University Libraries is one of the rarest of positions when it comes to things of bibliographic significance, of books and libraries, but, in reality, each one of us is a steward of the books that we own and the books that we read and the opportunities we have of reading. Each one of us is a steward of the act and of the experience of reading and each one of us knows that reading is essential to us as a human being.
It’s not only that, of course. Christians are heavily invested in the book. After all, we understand that God has revealed Himself to us in written form, in verbal form, in the form of a book. We understand what it means to have a reverence for the book that goes beyond just the fact that it is printed words intelligibly arranged on paper. We come to understand that there is something that is indeed even supernatural about what can happen with a book. That goes beyond perhaps what Harvard University is concerned with, but as Christians we understand that there is a rich heritage. Not only do we have the experience of reading in the same way that generations of Christians before us have read, sometimes even holding the same books that generations of Christians before us have read, but we also understand that there is an urgency to how we are to learn by reading. There are certain forms of godliness that come by reading. There is not only information that comes to us by the experience of reading; there is the experience that comes as well. We understand the urgency that led the Apostle Paul to write to Timothy, saying with urgency, “Bring the books and the parchments. If at all possible, come before winter.” To be a reader is to understand that urgency. To be a Christian reader is to understand that stewardship and to be a reader is to understand that most of us will find a way to read just about anything we can anywhere we can find the opportunity. Indeed, as Anna Quindlen once wrote, “The sad thing to recognize about one’s desperation to read—perhaps not so sad after all—is that under the right circumstances, waiting in a waiting room or something, you will read a book or a magazine article about something that you, so far as you know, have nothing to do with and no interest in.” As she said, “Sometimes in desperation, the reader will even read the repair manual for a 1972 Toyota Celica when he doesn’t even own a 1972 Toyota Celica.” There’s something about the experience of reading that is, at least in part, what makes us human. What separates us in part from the rest of the creation is the fact that we can read. Perhaps that should be a consideration to us as we reflect upon what it means to be made in the image of God, to be able to communicate, to verbalize and, indeed, to write and to read. “Bring the books and the parchments.” Those words by Paul to Timothy reflect the urgency of Christian reading.
The conversation today with Professor Robert Darnton reminds us of the stewardship in the contemporary age of books and libraries. And I really enjoyed the conversation about the future of the book in the digital age. What is the fate of the book in the future? Well, as Professor Darnton said, that’s not yet exactly clear. The experience of reading in the future is not yet precisely defined. It can’t be. After all, we’re talking about the future, but do know this: the experience of reading will remain essential to what it means to be fully human and for that reason the book will always have its place.
Many thanks to my guest, Dr. Robert Darnton, for thinking with me today. Before signing off, I want to encourage you to begin making plans now to attend D3, a special conference for high school students taking place June 25 through 28 on the campus of Southern Seminary. Now in its third year, D3 will be an action-packed summer opportunity complete with worship, life-shaping opportunities and more. Join me along with Dan Dumas, Eric Bancroft and others as we seek to develop students’ understanding of leadership, worldview and missions. For more information, visit sbts.edu.
Thanks for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.