Robert Darnton


Author Robert Darnton was interviewed on May 12, 2014. He appeared on Booknotes on August 21, 2003, where he discussed his book George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century.


Interview Transcript

Today is May 12, 2014, and we are here interviewing author Robert Darten, who appeared on Booknotes on August 31, 2003, to discuss his book, George Washington's False Teeth, An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century.  So Dr. Darten, how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

You know, I really don't know, as I recollect, but my recollection is a little vague. I received an email saying, "Would you like to be interviewed on Booknotes?" And I jumped at the opportunity because I think that Brian Lamb is a force for good, and I was delighted. So I flew to Washington and had a delightful discussion with him.

Did you do any preparing for your appearance?

No, none at all.

What do you remember most about your appearance on the show, and could you describe your experience, say, what you thought of the studio or anything like that?

Well, I've never been to a studio of that sort. I've been interviewed many times, but I was impressed with the kind of – there was a sort of electricity in the atmosphere. And there were a lot of young people scurrying about, so there was a kind of ethos that came across of energy, enthusiasm, youth, and also seriousness, although it was fairly lighthearted. I particularly recollect Brian  Lamb's cordiality and the fact that he'd actually read the book. He clearly had studied it, thought about it, and so it was a really very pleasant experience. You know, authors love to talk about their work, so you have to allow for the kind of egocentricity of authors. But Brian Lamb managed to get beyond that and to really address the issues in the book. That is what impressed me the most.

Well, then, since we're talking about Brian Lamb's reading of the book, judging by the extensive marginalia in his book, Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this to be normal with interviewers, and does it change the interview experience?

Well, I don't know what is normal. Actually, I have been interviewed many, many times, and there have been occasions when the interviewer clearly had not read the book and didn't know anything about it. I remember once I was interviewed on a French daily radio program at prime time, and right before the interviewer, the broadcast person said to me, "You know, I haven't read your book. Tell me what questions I should ask." Oh dear. So, it can be that interviewers are very casual about their job, and some of them are journalists in a rush. They don't really have the time to study the book in detail. Maybe they read the dust jacket, but things vary, and so I've had lots of long interviews as well, especially from foreign journalists. There are some countries that have a tradition of serious radio and television journalism, not to mention journalism in newspapers. So, the conditions have varied, but I must say I was really impressed with the thoughtfulness of Brian Lamb's questions, not just the fact that he'd read things.

The main person with whom I would compare him in a way is Bernard Pivot, who is the host on a television program that no longer exists called "Apostrophe in Paris." I appeared on that twice, and when you're interviewed by Bernard Pivot, for one thing, he never talks to you before the interview. He wants to catch you by surprise, but he appears with a copy of your book, and there are all kinds of notes that are stuck onto the pages, and the pages themselves were crumpled. So, you know that he's studied the book, and that's really very heartening for an author. Well, Pivot, in a way, was in a class by himself, but I think that Brian Lamb made a great contribution to creating a kind of discourse, a conversation about books that was of great service to the country. I can assure you, I've got actually Brian Lamb's copy of your book in front of me, and it looks very much like a grad student going through the text with notes on every page and underlining and questions in the front pages of the book and in the back pages of the book. And I'm sure it's a librarian's nightmare with all the writing and underlining and notations in the book. Well, you know, those of us who study the history of books are delighted with books that are marked up, and some marginalia is really very interesting, and sometimes more interesting than the book itself. It certainly tells a lot about the reading of the book, how someone read the book.

Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network in television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

Well, of course, the question turns on the attention span of viewers and the nature of the public to which a telecast is addressed. Probably there is a lot of self-selection that goes into the people who watched Brian Lamb's Booknotes, and so no doubt they were already expecting a detailed, deep, and reflective kind of interview as opposed to the quick shots that are fired off more or less at random in the shorter interviews. There are other places that have long interviews. I mentioned Pivot in France. That's an hour telecast, which was very widely followed. And there have been radio and telecasts, one I participated in in Brazil, for example, lasted a full hour with a panel of questioners firing questions at me. In fact, I was in a revolving chair and was surrounded by them, and I was supposed to pivot as they addressed the questions. It felt a little bit like a firing squad, although the questions were perfectly nice. So, you know, practices vary, but I do believe that American television tends to be superficial, and therefore the hour-long format is really unusual and does permit the possibility of a conversation taking unexpected directions. And for a back-and-forth quality of the conversation, so that if you're dealing with the world of books, the surrounding world of talk about books, conversation, I think, is part of the communication process, and certainly it's fair to say that Brian Lamb was a master at creating that kind of public discourse. As I'm curious, as a historian of the book, do you think that this sort of discourse in the future will become part of the study, as well as just looking at the books themselves? Well, I'm not very good about prophesying about the past, and when it comes to the future, I'm hopeless, but it's already true that those of us who study the history of books are deeply interested in the conversation that surrounds books, so that it's not enough just to read the text, not enough to read even margin notes and reviews, if such things exist. But you want to recreate the public discourse that surrounded a book at the time of its reception. That's extremely difficult, but sometimes it can be done, and in fact there is a French sociologist, he's now pretty well forgotten, called Gabriel Tarde. And Tarde developed a fascinating theory about the formation of public opinion, in which he said it's even more important to trace the talk about a printed message as it is to locate the time and place of the printed message. In other words, there's a, if I use the word dialectic, that would sound too fancy, but there is a back and forth process that is crucial to the way messages actually take in particular social conditions. And so for book historians, that kind of information, whenever you can get at it, is absolutely crucial. Now, will such information exist in the future? Maybe it will be even richer, because certainly book clubs involve discussions of books, and we've seen book clubs exploding all over the country. And blogs also are an important place for discussing books. And all kinds of Twitters and Tweets and messaging of all sorts. So there, although a lot of people are lamenting the supposed death of the book, which is ridiculous since more books are published each year in print than the year before, despite that, I think there are strong possibilities that the general discussion of books, the way books are assimilated by the public, that that process actually will broaden and deepen. At least I hope so.

Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting? And do you think other authors and publishers find them interesting as well?

Frankly, I have doubts as to the interest about methodology on the part of the general public and even on the part of the general educated public. However, you can make that interesting. And one of the tricks or skills of Brian Lamb was that in asking about the background of the book, the work that went into it, he didn't use big words like methodology and theoretical concerns, but he teased out those considerations using straightforward language, which is, of course, the skill of a good interviewer. So I think that it is possible and that Brian Lamb made it possible to discuss these things in a way that could appeal to general viewers and listeners. However, as a rule, I think discussions of methods and sources interest other writers and researchers rather than the general public. We can rattle on forever about this because, you know, it's so central to what we do. And of course, the net result, the actual text that is printed, is the product of all kinds of choices and strategic decisions made by the researcher. Very few readers understand how those decisions and really determine the sort of final product. So I think it's a relevant consideration, but I'm not sure that people in general are terribly interested in it.

Well, in your interview, Mr. Lamb teased out of you a description of what it was like to go into the archives and be handed the box and open that box to, you know, untying the little ribbon on it and everything. And I think that he was fascinated by that.

Well, I'm glad he asked that question because I myself find it fascinating and the fascination can be communicated to people who are not professional researchers. But beyond that, it makes a more fundamental point, namely that history is problematic. It depends to a very great extent on this curious process of opening up boxes and going through dossiers of manuscripts. I honestly think that most people believe we know history. It's pretty well under control. It's between the covers of printed books, and they don't quite grasp the extent to which history is constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted. According to a constant flow of fresh material that has to be sorted out and worked up by the historian or by someone in another field. So that I think it's useful for readers to understand the kind of openness and problematic character of that process in itself. Well, he also Mr. Lamb also asked extensively about in this particular book, you have an acknowledgement section in the in the back of the book, in which you say where these actual chapters were from. He seemed quite interested in the fact that the book wasn't written as a as a whole, but instead that they were. It was a gathering of various articles and speeches you had given. And he was he was very interested in asking about the history of all of each of the of the parts that went into the whole.

Yes, that was generous of him to put those questions. I have published several books of essays in which I do bring together articles that were written for a particular occasion or for a special public not to be included in a book. And then in retrospect, it seemed that they had enough affinity among themselves to go here in in a general argument that would run across all of them and the the publishable in book form. But publishing books of essays is a is problematic. It's a special sort of publication. Some people think you shouldn't do that at all. When I was a student in Oxford, I remember being told by a very distinguished English historian, oh, never publish collections of essays concentrate on the large scale self-contained volume. I disagree with that. I think the essay actually is a wonderful form because the word itself actually communicates what you're doing. You're essaying, trying out an argument without the pretension of being systematic and really conclusive in the research that's behind it. So myself, I love essays and books of essays. And I'm glad that Brian Lamb found that a legitimate form.

So Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you? Were there any of Mr. Lamb's questions that surprised you? And is that different from most interviews that you've experienced?

Well, again, it depends on the interview. I mean, if an interview has is one that's aimed to be 15 minutes or half an hour or even an hour, usually a biographical question intervenes at one point or other. I mean, so much of my work is studied outside of the U.S. After all, I deal with European history primarily. I find most of the interviews I give are in other countries. So if it's France, for example, they always almost always begin with the question, why are you as an American studying French history, which they find puzzling. And, you know, I have various answers to that. I've been going to Latin America quite a bit recently, and they frequently ask biographical questions. I'm not sure exactly why, but maybe as a foreigner, I'm a kind of exotic curiosity. And so they want to locate me contextually from their readers. However, that's a phase that passes. And in general, I would say the reception of books and interviews about books have very little to do with the biography of authors. But we all know that authors are real people with real lives, and it would be naive to think that their own personal concerns didn't inflect the character of the books they write. Did you watch Booknotes before your interview, and did your experience on the show change your impression of it? Well, this may shock you, but I never watched television. We don't have a television at home, and we brought up our children with no TV in the household because we wanted them to read books, and we thought the quality of television was so poor that we didn't like the idea of them gluing their little faces to the screen. And in fact, they did become readers, and I don't regret that decision. So I had never seen Booknotes before, and well, I really don't follow television at all. I know there are wonderful things on TV, and I'm sure I'm missing a lot. But one of the points of Booknotes, if I understand correctly, and of C-SPAN in general, is to raise the level of television, which has often been described as a wasteland. And, well, maybe it is a wasteland, although now with all kinds of cable channels and a greater variety of television, that might be an unfair judgment. Well, the Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantage of having this collection, these particular selected volumes, in one place? Well, the obvious advantage, I think, is having a record of a certain kind of cultural history, not of American culture in general, but where else can you find a careful, thoroughly discussed account of books of a certain kind, serious nonfiction books, a discussion that occurs over many, many years. So it strikes me, although I haven't read your archives, and you're now creating them, that this will be a source of documentation of great value for future historians.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked, would you return for another interview?

Yes, I certainly would. I enjoyed it, and so I would. Now, the rule of one book from one author had some unusual consequences. That is to say that the one book might not be the absolute best representative of that author's work, and some of the books are. What do you think that changes in terms of the relation to the author? Well, that's a good question. I must say, in my case, the book, George Washington's False Teeth, is my least favorite book, and in my view, at least, the one that is most unimportant among the many books I've written. I was grateful, therefore, that Brian Lamb asked me questions about my research in general, instead of simply focusing on that particular book. So, yes, I can see that there are disadvantages if in a conversation that's focused exclusively on one book which might be not the most important of an author's production. But I believe that Brian Lamb had a gift for trying to get at what an author was about in general, what the project, what the concerns of an author were, and therefore, he avoided narrowness of focus. Was there a difference in sales or national attention to your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes, and was there any change in the critical reception? I haven't the faintest idea. I never follow the sales record of books, and I've sent reviews, although I don't watch them terribly carefully. So I can't tell you if the results of the interview improved sales or improved the reception in any way. I hope it did, but I honestly don't know. Well, you're, this is, I believe, is this the one book out of your entire collection of books that you wrote for a more mainstream audience? No, it's not. In fact, most of the books, most, not all, but most of the books I've written are intended for the general educated reader, and yet at the same time, they're also intended for researchers because they come out of the, come out of archival research. Now, it's true that the title may have been a little bit more catchy than some of the other titles I've used, although the book I wrote called The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French Cultural History has had a much wider sale and seems to have reached readers in all kinds of, with all kinds of different interests. If I might say, I find it's, it's frequently required reading in any cultural history course. Well, I'm glad to hear that. I do get a great deal of mail about that particular book. So, you never know when you write a book whether it will take or not. I don't aim to gain readers by pursuing a particular strategy. I just feel that I don't want to write exclusively for other history professors. And furthermore, that I feel a lot of respect for general readers. I think they are intelligent people, but they don't have PhDs in history, so I try to avoid jargon and to use clear straightforward language, but without talking down to them, rather addressing them as, you know, intelligent fellow citizens.

Well, did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your approaches or assumptions regarding your research and writing?

Well, I think before I appeared on Booknotes, I already wanted very much to reach general readers or what I call the general educated reader. But the, the, the occasion of appearing on Booknotes confirmed that desire and made it seem as though it actually might be possible. So, I felt reinforced in this ambition and encouraged that someone in television would take seriously my writing. So, yes, it made a difference. So, since, since your interview in 2003, you have gone on to become the university librarian at Harvard. That's correct? Yes. So, what have you been working on after, after this book? And what are some of the books that you have written that you are pleased with? Well, let's see, I've written a fair number of books since George Washington's False Teeth. If I can remember the order, I did one very large, heavily researched book called The Devil in the Holy Water. It's a study of slanderous and sensational literature in France from the age of Louis XIV to Napoleon. That, that required a lot of labor and I'm not sure it did take with the general public. Probably it was too long. But it did get across several points that I've been wanting to make for a long time. I did a book fairly recently called Poetry and the Police. And that's one that is quite short by contrast. It was a lot of fun to write and to research in large part because it deals with the oral communication. How did messages penetrate into society by word of mouth? And so it was related to other work I'd done, but it's very tricky and difficult to study oral communication. It turned out that a lot of the, of news, for lack of a better word, was communicated by songs. That is, people in the streets of Paris improvised new words to old tunes and Paris was full of people singing about current events at a time when there weren't real newspapers with news in them. So that was another example of a book that was aimed at a much more general public. I also just completed a book on censorship and that will be published this coming September. So I've been continuing to write books, although it's difficult to do that, while being in charge of the largest university library in the world. Fortunately, we've got terrific professional librarians who do the actual administration and day-to-day work, but my biggest institutional commitment is actually the Harvard University Library and also to Harvard students because I continue to teach.

In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the then contemporary American society and perhaps in subsequent times?

Well, it's difficult for me to measure impact, so I am speculating, but it seems to me that Booknotes raise the level of public discourse in general, not just about books, and that we need a serious general programs aimed at a general public that will get across the character of research and writing in lots of areas of nonfiction. There was, there's a tremendous need for this sort of thing. And my guess is that the public is hungry for it, that the public isn't just interested in sports. Sports are great. There's not, I have nothing against soap operas, but there is, I think, out there, a very broad audience that would like a more serious fair in the media. If there is to be a lasting impact of Booknotes, it could be that it's proven that you can, in a serious way, improve the general cultural fair of television and yet not be boring, be fun. And that, I think, is quite an accomplishment.

Do you think perhaps the internet and the worldwide access is going to carry on this sort of work, that there will be an even larger audience looking at different ways to look at books?

I certainly hope so, and the possibility is definitely there. So as you may know, we have created a new kind of library called the Digital Public Library of America. Right. It's one, it's now one year old. We launched it on April 18th of last year. And it's been a huge success. It already has seven million items available, free of charge to all Americans. It, I think, is opening up the possibility for Americans to have direct access to their own cultural heritage, and of course it extends beyond America because it's used all over the world. But it's only at an early stage. So what I'm hoping is that the internet and open access that is having free access to the cultural riches of our libraries and museums and archives, that that really will make a difference. You know, Thomas Jefferson said that knowledge is the common property of mankind. It was one of those great Jeffersonian statements that has a wonderful ring to it. But of course, in his day, the means of communication were limited pretty much to print, aside from the oral communication. And most people were illiterate, and those who could read couldn't afford to buy books. But today we have the internet, and therefore the possibility of making available the cultural heritage of our country is right in front of us. And I'm very optimistic about making, realizing that possibility and enriching the lives of everyone, not just the privileged few who go to elite universities, but the entire public. Well, what will set libraries apart then? When we, you know, if we can see an eventuality where every library has access to all of the same books and articles, what will set the libraries apart then? Well, I think librarians and libraries will be more important than ever. For one thing, people get lost in cyberspace. The idea that you can simply go to Wikipedia, which I love, or go to Google, which is an extraordinary service, that idea is misleading. Because I see it every day with my own students. As soon as you get beyond that first step, you get, you don't know where to go. You get lost. And so librarians can provide guidance through cyberspace. They can indicate reliable sources. They can orient users. These are librarians in research libraries, but we have a wonderful population of librarians in ordinary public libraries. And those libraries are now fuller than they've ever been. I'm a trustee of the New York Public Library, which has 87 branches. And we find that people just pile into these neighborhood libraries. Why? Well, for lots of different reasons. Many of them take out books. They consult the magazines and so on, videos. But they also go there to look for jobs because, you know, want ads in newspapers for jobs have disappeared. You need to go online, but the jobless don't have computers at home frequently, and they don't know how to use the Internet. So they go to their public library where they have a computer available and they have instruction on how to use it. And this is a tremendous service for the unemployed in our country. I mean, that's just one example. I think teaching English to immigrants who don't have sufficient command of English is tremendously important. Huge amount of that that goes on in libraries. And in general, libraries are becoming community centers. They are the focal point of many, many communities. So they have a great future, I think, ahead of them. They never were warehouses of books. But what we're seeing, I think, in the electronic age is that libraries can expand their functions and their effectiveness by being one step ahead of things, by being prepared to make the most of the digital media.

I have reached the end of my scripted questions, save for the last one, that is to ask you, is there anything that you would like to add regarding Booknotes program, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

Not really, just to send my thanks. I would like to thank you for following up on this important adventure, which was Booknotes, and for providing the information that will be valuable to future historians. So my main parting word, I guess, is simply thank you.

Well, thank you so much, Dr. Darnton. Thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program. Thank you so much, sir. We certainly appreciate your time and your insights.