Robert Choate Darnton (born May 10, 1939) is an American historian and library director (currently a Trustee of the New York Public Library) who has written expansively and lucidly on the history of books and libraries. I take the following letter from Darnton’s book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. New York: NY Public Affairs. 2009. The letter, written in 1471, just twenty years after Gutenberg’s invention. is from Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, to Francesco Guarnerio.
I read it and stopped in my tracks, as they say, and looked about me, why this could be today, in 2017, how many, some five and one half centuries later. How many of us have thought or said, if not written something similar, very similar, regarding the extraordinary changes in our lives brought about by the Internet. While I don’t believe this is true today (nor then), that the changes wrought by the Internet are on balance destructive or detrimental, but rather that they are a wondrous benefit to more and more if not all of us, I might still ask Niccolo’s question: Has it, the Internet, not the printing press, corrupted us to the point where it would be much better if it did not exist rather than it spread with little or no thought or effort falsehoods (conspiracy theories, fake news, and the like) over the known world.
My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany. In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year. . . . It was for this reason that I was led to hope that within a short time we should have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn’t be a single work which could not be procured because of lack of means or scarcity. . . .
Yet—oh false and all too human thoughts—I see that things turned out quite differently from what I had hoped. Because now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books. And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.