The Bookless Future



Scenes from the Internet revolution in scholarship:

It is late at night, and I am at home, in my study, doing research
for a book on the culture of war in Napoleonic Europe. In an old
and dreary secondary source, I find an intriguing but fragmentary
quotation from a newspaper that was briefly published in
French-occupied Italy in the late 1790s. I want to read the entire
article from which it came. As little as five years ago, doing this
would have required a forty-mile trip from my home in Baltimore to
the Library of Congress and some tedious wrestling with a
microfiche machine. But now I step over to my computer, open up
Internet Explorer, and click to the "digital library" of the French
National Library. A few more clicks, and a facsimile copy of the
newspaper issue in question is zooming out of my printer. Total
time elapsed: two minutes.It is the next day, and I am in a coffee shop on my university
campus, writing a conference paper. A passage from Edmund Burke's
Letters on a Regicide Peace comes to mind, but I can't remember the
exact wording. Finding the passage, as little as five years ago,
would have required going to the library, locating the book on the
shelf (or not!), and paging through the text in search of the
half-remembered material. Instead, on my laptop, I open Internet
Explorer, connect to the wireless campus network, and type the words
"Burke Letters Regicide Peace" into the Google search window.
Seconds later, I have found the entire text online. I search for
the words "armed doctrine" and up comes the quote. ("It is with an
armed doctrine that we are at war. It has, by its essence, a
faction of opinion, and of interest, and of enthusiasm, in every
country.") Total time elapsed: less than one minute.

It is a few days later, and I am in my university office. I have
seen a notice of a new book on Napoleonic propaganda, and am eager
to read it. A few years ago, I would have walked over to the
library and checked the book out. But this particular book does not
exist on paper. It is an "e-book," published on the Internet only.
A few clicks, and the text duly appears on my computer screen. I
start reading, but while the book is well-written and informative,
I find it remarkably hard to concentrate. I scroll back and forth,
search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than
usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news,
re-arrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the
book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it
remarkably hard to remember what I have read.

As these scenes suggest, in the past few years the world of
scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has been
astonishingly transformed by the new information technology. Above
all, it has been transformed by the amount of source material now
available online--some of it by paid subscription, but much of it
there for the taking by anyone with an Internet connection. Google
made news in December with its ambitious plan to digitize the
entire collections of several major research libraries (or at least
the proportion that is in the public domain)--but to a much larger
extent than the journalists who covered the story realized, the
future that Google promises is already here. As I sit writing these
words on my front porch, I can call up, in a matter of seconds, the
sort of riches once found only in a handful of major research
institutions: every issue ever printed of The New York Times; tens
of thousands of classic and not-so-classic works of literature; a
large majority of the books published in English before 1800; a
million pages' worth of French Revolutionary pamphlets and
newspapers; every issue of virtually every major American newspaper
and magazine going back a decade or more; every page of most major
American academic journals going back half a century; most major
encyclopedias and dictionaries; all the major works of Western
painters and sculptors. And much more is coming. Some of this
material will remain available only in facsimile form. Much of it,
though, is already entirely searchable. Name your keyword, and the
Internet delivers the citations to you with the force of a fire
hose in the face.

So far, most scholars have seen this transformation as a blessing--
particularly those who do not have access to large, privileged
research libraries. Indeed, its democratizing effects cannot be
overestimated. Ten years ago, a historian whom I know took a job at
the University of South Dakota. The entire library collection in
her field ran little more than the length of her arm on the shelf,
making real work on the subject effectively impossible, and she
soon left. Today, a scholar in South Dakota, or Shanghai, or
Albania-- anywhere on earth with an Internet connection--has a
research library at her fingertips, even without access to the
"subscription-only" content that makes up a large share of the
holdings. The only protest I have seen against this democratization
of information has come from Jean-Nol Jeanneney, director of
France's National Library. In a February op-ed piece in Le Monde
that will long stand as a classic of unintentional Gallic
self-parody, he complained that the Google project, by drawing
principally on American libraries, would reinforce America's
"crushing domination" of online information--no matter that the
project will vastly expand the number of French books available as
well, and that nothing is stopping France from engaging in a
similar project of its own.

But the Internet revolution is soon likely to become much more
controversial, and for a simple reason: scholarship is fast moving
toward a bookless future. Physical books are expensive to produce,
and they are easily damaged or stolen. Shelf space costs money to
build. Shelving and re-shelving books costs more. Stacks have to be
kept at the appropriate temperature and humidity; they need to be
lit, cleaned, inspected, and insured. Why, it is already being
asked, should universities pay large sums to preserve and circulate
physical books if copies exist online? Just as physical card
catalogues have been stored away or even destroyed, replaced by
electronic ones, so physical books are likely to follow. Libraries,
in turn, are likely to turn increasingly into virtual
informationretrieval centers, possibly located thousands of miles
from the readers they serve. They already largely serve this
function in the physical sciences, where the revolution in question
took place much earlier, and without much protest.

Writers such as Nicholson Baker, who eloquently objected to the
disappearance of the physical card catalogues, are likely to greet
this much larger change with despairing howls of anger. They will
defend the physical book as an irreplaceable treasure, dwelling in
covetous detail on every aspect of it: the paper, the typefaces,
the binding. They will talk about its tactile pleasures, about the
inimitable scent of dusty vellum and leather, and compare these
things to the unnatural, unpleasant, uncomfortable experience of
reading on a screen. They will cite the famous line of Borges: "I
have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." They
will call the transformation another victory of soulless barbarism
over true culture.

But this stance, for all its obvious aesthetic attractions, is far
too sentimental, and too easy. Not only is the advent of bookless
or largely bookless libraries too large and powerful a change to be
held back, it also offers too many real advantages for it to be
considered a tragedy. Its democratizing potential, to begin with,
counts for a great deal. Making vast libraries of learning
available at no cost to anyone with an Internet connection is
surely more important than preserving the rarefied pleasures of
physical research libraries for those lucky or privileged enough to
have easy access to them. The Internet also promises to make new
forms of scholarship possible: new forms of research predicated on
the rapid and efficient searching of vast databases, new
hypertextual methods of presenting the results, and new means of
ensuring their accuracy. Moreover, there are also
ways--technological ways--of minimizing the aesthetic price to be

What really matters, particularly at this early stage, is not to
damn or to praise the eclipse of the paper book or the digital
complication of its future, but to ensure that it happens in the
right way, and to minimize the risks. For the risks are certainly
real, and they go well beyond the disappearance of a particular
physical object. The Internet revolution is changing not only what
scholars read, but also how they read--and if my own experience is
any guide, it can easily make them into worse readers.
Technological innovation can help to address this problem, and it
is already beginning to do so. But it is not yet receiving the
support it needs, from either the publishing or the electronics


How is the Internet changing the experience of reading? Consider the
e-book that I found so hard to get through. Its title is The
Genesis of Napoleonic Propaganda, 1796-1799, and in most ways it is
a typical well-researched academic monograph. Fifteen years ago,
its author, Wayne Hanley, would have easily found a university
press willing to publish it as a sturdy hardcover volume with a
print run of five hundred or a thousand copies.

But today specialized books of this sort are a distinctly endangered
species. Their main purchasers--university libraries--have far less
money to spend on these items than they once did. Computerized
catalogues, subscription content, hugely expensive scientific
journals, exploding storage costs: all these demands are putting
tremendous pressure on budgets that are often already flat or
declining. In response, libraries have cut back purchases or have
started to form consortia with their neighbors, so that now only
one research library in a given region may buy a particular book.
As a result, specialized academic titles often sell as few as two
hundred copies, and university presses lose an average of more than
$10,000 on each. The presses have cut back in turn, particularly in
the more arcane precincts of scholarship. They are also passing the
cost pressures on to those authors they do accept; it is becoming
routine in some fields for university presses to demand subsidies
of $5,000 or more to publish a book, and to insist on strict limits
on length. In some fields, the printed academic monograph seems
dangerously close to extinction.

As scholars started to grapple with these problems several years
ago, they concentrated, not surprisingly, on the immediate
professional consequences: what happens to "publish or perish" if
publishing becomes impossible? The obvious solution was to move
specialized scholarship onto the Internet, but this presented its
own set of professional problems. Today, anyone with a website is a
"publisher." I have published several particularly specialized
pieces of scholarship on my own website, for the sake of
convenience. But this sort of "publishing" eliminates the peer
reviewing that gives printed monographs the stamp of approval from
the academic establishment, not to mention professional editing.
Few scholars without tenure have the luxury to do it.

Just when these problems started to seem acute, Robert Darnton, a
professor of history at Princeton, appeared on the scene with a
suggestion. Darnton is a founding father of the field known as "the
history of the book." (He was also my dissertation adviser.)
Serving as president of the American Historical Association in
1999, he saw the chance not simply to write history, but to make
it. He proposed creating a new book award, called the Gutenberg-e
Prize, in fields of history where the publishing crisis had grown
particularly acute. The winners, instead of the usual certificate
and check, would instead get their manuscripts "published" online.
Columbia University Press came on board as a sponsor, and to
provide editing support. The result has been a "book series"
well-produced and prestigious enough to convince the most demanding
tenure committee.

And Darnton had even greater ambitions. As he pointed out in a
series of articles, electronic monographs can be much more than
simple "books on a screen. " He envisioned scholarship as
hypertext, with "books" that would operate on several layers: a top
layer of argument, from which readers could click down to a lower
level of more detailed substantiation, and, below that, to further
levels of raw evidence. Darnton himself provided an example in an
impressive experimental article titled "An Early Information
Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris," about the
circulation of "seditious" information under the Old Regime.
Published online (at, it contains a
thirty-five-page text, illustrations, maps, a score of transcribed
police reports, and twelve music files of seditious songs. An early
modern society in the midst of one communications revolution (most
notably, the rise of the newspaper) had come under study by a
scholar using the experimental methods of another.

Internet publication can also improve scholarship in another way: by
allowing for easy correction of mistakes. Last year, with much
fanfare, an impressive new version of the British Dictionary of
National Biography appeared, only to have various critics assail it
for all manner of minor and not-so- minor errors. Making
corrections easily available to users of the print version is a
Sisyphean task, but correcting the online version is ridiculously
easy. And where serious disagreements arise, the publishers can, if
they choose, publish the debates themselves online. The result
would be to make the work less of an imposing, "definitive"
monument, and more of an ongoing scholarly conversation--and that
is an attractive proposition.

The "Gutenberg-e" series invented by Darnton now has eleven titles,
ranging from Hanley's study of Napoleonic propaganda to Daniel
Kowalsky's Stalin and the Spanish Civil War to Michael Katten's
Colonial Lists/Colonial Power: Identity Formation in
Nineteenth-Century Telugu-Speaking India. All are intelligent and
lucid monographs, of interest principally to specialists. All take
advantage of technology, even if they do not always live up to the
promise of Darnton's hypertext model. Kowalsky's book includes
short clips of Soviet newsreels alongside photographic
illustrations, but in such low screen resolution as to make them
virtually unwatchable. Gregory Brown's impressive monograph A Field
of Honor, about French literary culture in the eighteenth century,
has links to the collected works of several French authors, lengthy
reproductions of archival documents, and hypertext links that allow
one to move back and forth through the text in pursuit of
particular themes.

For scholarly readers, these "books" are the shape of the future.
Anyone who wants to check a citation in Edmund Burke can still find
his works in print in any good library; but anyone interested in
the Spanish Civil War who wants to learn Kowalsky's revisionist
opinion of Soviet involvement, and anyone interested in the birth
of modern literary culture who wants to consult Brown on the
subject, has no choice but to read them online. And it is
inevitable that great numbers of older, out-of-copyright titles
will soon join these new ones in a cyberspace-only existence. One
can almost hear the calculators clicking in the library offices:
why keep multiple copies of Hard Times, The Social Contract,
Paradise Lost, or War and Peace on expensive shelf space when
anyone can download a perfectly good copy in his or her bedroom?
Libraries that balked, decades ago, at putting much of their
collections on microfilm, given the cumbersome machinery needed to
read it, are showing no such hesitation when it comes to putting
books on line.

But again: what will this rush to cyberspace mean for the simple act
of reading? This is where the problems with the Internet revolution
are most obvious, and most harmful, as I discovered with Hanley's
book, and even more with Brown's A Field of Honor. Printed in
standard form, even without the bibliography, this book would run
350 to 400 pages. It is clearly written, but it deals with
difficult concepts, and it invokes dense and demanding theorists
such as Bourdieu and Habermas. Even skipping certain sections, it
took me many hours to get through, and by the end, the experience
of reading on the screen had become, through no fault of the
author's, distinctly painful.


Why is reading on the screen so genuinely unpleasant? Start with a
basic point: reading itself is a fundamentally unnatural act.
Anyone who has ever taught a child to read will remember the
difficulty involved in distinguishing, for instance, between
lowercase b, d, and p. After all, if you move them around or flip
them over, they are the same. We have to be taught to see them only
as they appear, flat and unnatural, upon the printed page. And we
have to be taught also to take in not just a few of these odd
marks, but the thousands that go into telling even the simplest
children's story, to say nothing of the roughly one million that
make up A Field of Honor. It takes years of practice before most of
us do it easily, and even then, when it comes to difficult texts,
it is the rare reader who perseveres, hour after hour, without a

Faced with these problems, Western culture long ago invented the
optimal device for reading. Devised in the fourth century to
replace cumbersome scrolls and parchments, it was called the book:
a series of pages bound together between sturdy covers, light,
portable, and easy to hold in the hand. Although some books,
considered deserving of particular reverence, came to be produced
in large "folio" formats that could be consulted comfortably only on
a desk or bookstand, most could be read virtually anywhere, in any

Remarkably, the great "printing revolution" that began with Johannes
Gutenberg changed these practices very little. Gutenberg and his
colleagues purposefully designed their new printed books as
virtually exact physical copies of the manuscript books of the late
Middle Ages. Put a printed book of the late fifteenth century side
by side with a manuscript book of the same period, and it is
surprisingly difficult to tell the gothic typeface of the one from
the scribal handwriting of the other. The "revolution" was a
revolution in the means of production far more than in the nature
of the product itself.

In this sense, our own communications revolution has been strikingly
different from the earlier one. It has emphatically not been
"Gutenberg II." To state the obvious: computer screens were not
originally intended to replace books, and it is something of a
technological accident that they are now coming to do so. Until the
advent of the personal computer twenty-five years ago, computer
screens were mostly used by professional computer programmers. They
were modeled on earlier devices such as teletype terminals, with
their typewriter keys and endless scrolls of yellow paper, which in
turn had partially replaced punch cards and paper and magnetic
tape. While screens were used to read programs, and data, and the
early e-mail messages carried by Arpanet, very few people used them
to read prose texts of any length.

This situation began to change with the rise of the PC in the 1980s,
and the Internet a decade later; but still computer screens did not
evolve very far toward the physical form of the book. Screen
resolution improved, and today even a basic laptop screen will hold
several hundred words in a reasonable facsimile of a printed page.
Yet most screens remain wider than they are long, unlike printed
book pages. Most computers make it easier to scroll down, line by
line, than to page through a text. And screens are by no means as
portable or as comfortable to hold as books. Personal digital
assistants (PDAs), while more comfortable, display very little text
at a time.

There are good reasons why an evolution toward the form of the book
has not taken place. The wide screen that looks so unnatural for
book reading is perfect for spreadsheets and for video. Scrolling
down, line by line, remains the logical way to view things like
computer code. And computers are designed above all for the
comfortable input of information, which is to say that the screen
is locked to a keyboard (or, in the case of a PDA or a Tablet PC,
the screen itself becomes a slate designed for writing on with a
stylus). In short, reading has remained distinctly subordinate to
the computer's other uses. Nothing could be more different from the
printing revolution, which had the reproduction of an existing
form--the book--as its principal purpose.

Unfortunately, this subordination has grim consequences for reading.
Start with the fact that what is already an unnatural task becomes
more physically uncomfortable. One must stare at a screen in an
upright chair, or hold a heavy, awkward, and rigid piece of
equipment on one's lap for hours. People will accept these
constraints where no alternative is available--when working on a
spreadsheet or playing computer games--but this is not the case with
books. The relatively low resolution of even today's screens,
compared with that of the printed page, tends to induce eyestrain.
So does the fact that the eye remains at a constant distance from
the screen. The tendency to scroll down rather than flip pages only
makes things worse. It may seem a small detail, but a page becomes
all the harder to concentrate on when the physical position of the
words is constantly changing.

The very nature of the computer presents a different problem. If
physical discomfort discourages the reading of texts sequentially,
from start to finish, computers make it spectacularly easy to move
through texts in other ways--in particular, by searching for
particular pieces of information. Reading in this strategic,
targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the
organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it
with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it.
You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely
where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should
not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not
reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is,
after all, the way one learns.

If my own experience is any guide, "search-driven" reading can make
for depressingly sloppy scholarship. Recently, I decided to examine
the way in which the radical eighteenth-century thinker d'Holbach
discussed warfare. I could have read his book Universal Morality in
the rare-book room of my university library, but I decided instead
to download a copy (it took about two minutes). And then, faced
with a text hundreds of pages long, instead of reading from start
to finish, I searched for the words "war" and "peace." I found a
great many juicy quotations, which I conveniently cut and pasted
directly into my notes. But at the end, I had very little idea of
why d'Holbach had written his book in the first place. If I had had
to read the physical book, I could still have skimmed, cut, and
pasted, but I would have been forced to confront the text as a
whole at some basic level. The computer encouraged me to read in
exactly the wrong way, leaving me with little but a series of
disembodied passages.

Of course, there was an obvious alternative to reading on the
screen: printing the thing out. With d'Holbach, I did print the
first hundred or so pages, only to have my computer chirpily
announce that it was time for another expensive ink cartridge.
Printing out is an expensive proposition, as well as a troublesome
and time-consuming one. In any case, printing a book out goes
against the point of using the Internet in the first place. Printing
takes away the hypertext, multimedia functions built into works
such as Darnton's. And reading on the screen, frustrating as it is,
has certain advantages. On my own computer I keep several
foreign-language dictionaries and a good thesaurus; the Oxford
English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica are just a few
clicks away. I can have several books open at the same time to
compare texts. I have immediate access not just to Internet
resources but, on my hard drive, to just about every note I have
taken and every piece of writing I have done in the last twenty
years. Finally, there is a certain intellectual justification for
instant gratification: ideas occur with particular readiness when
you can pursue a train of thought quickly from one book to another.
Readers of physical books have long known this form of research--it
is called browsing in the stacks.


Is there a way to have these advantages without doing lasting harm
to the experience of reading itself? Perhaps, at least in part.
What is needed is a technological solution, in the spirit of the
original Gutenberg revolution, the revolution of the fifteenth
century. That is to say, what is needed is a computer that looks
and feels exactly like a book. And it is coming. Recent advances in
"electronic ink" and new reading devices so far sold only in Japan
come tantalizingly close to this ideal, but there are still major
obstacles on the road--not all of them technological.

To date, the various attempts to produce specialized electronic
reading devices have mostly been failures. In 1999, at the height
of the tech boom, gadgets called the SoftBook and the Rocket eBook
created a brief stir when they came on the market. Designed
explicitly for reading, they were light, easy to hold, and had
vertical, page-like screens, although with poor resolution by
today's standards. But both devices flopped. So did a cheaper,
smaller, PDA- like version called the eBookman, sold by Franklin.

The electronics industry has had marginally greater success getting
people to use their PDAs, laptops, cell phones, and Tablet PCs for
reading. A number of programs such as Palm Reader, Microsoft
Reader, and Acrobat eBook make these computers as "book-like" as
possible, including special screen fonts that in theory reduce
eyestrain. But e-books have not yet come close to challenging the
hegemony of printed books. Their sales, while growing, amount to a
tiny percentage of industry totals (just under $10 million in the
first three quarters of 2004). Barnes and Noble, which made a
significant effort to sell e- books on its website, quietly
discontinued the practice last year.

Perhaps the surest sign of the insignificance of e-books is that for
years electronic versions of best-sellers have been available on
file-sharing services such as Kazaa without causing much scandal or
even notice. The New York Times estimated recently that as many as
25,000 titles can be downloaded, including all the Harry Potter
novels and The Da Vinci Code--but sales of the print versions have
not been hurt enough to make the publishing industry worry. Most
book editors I know are not even aware of the files' existence.

The physical e-book readers have failed for three reasons. First,
and most important, the various devices are simply not book-like
enough. While the specialized reading machines, PDAs, and cell
phones are lighter and more comfortable to hold than computers,
their screens are terribly small and coarse. A Pocket PC screen
using Microsoft Reader can display barely a hundred words at a
time, which makes even a relatively short book more than a thousand
screens long. The Tablet PC does better on this score, but it is
heavy, rigid, and awkward, and thus has been marketed almost
exclusively as a note-taking device. Nor does any of these gadgets
really solve the eyestrain problem--even with Reader, which
Microsoft released to considerable fanfare a few years ago and has
since allowed to wither. Secondly, the specialized reading devices,
while slightly more comfortable, were too expensive. Who was going
to spend $800 on RCA's color version of the Rocket eBook when a few
hundred dollars more would purchase a full-featured laptop with a
better screen?

Most importantly, the companies, clearly fearing that the devices
themselves would not generate sufficient income, focused instead on
selling "proprietary content"--that is, encoded versions of books
under copyright. Several of them, such as the SoftBook, initially
did not even provide a way for readers to load their own readings
onto the devices. As might have been predicted, the companies
thereby drove themselves into a classic vicious circle: publishers
refused to make more than a handful of titles available without
evidence of readers' interest, and readers, faced with a tiny
selection of titles, shunned the devices entirely.

This story points to one of the most powerful factors inhibiting the
development of book-like computers and reading devices: the
publishing industry itself. For the moment the sharing of pirated
book files over the Internet has attracted little attention. But
imagine the development of a computer that really was as easy and
as comfortable to read as a book. Would book-sharing become as
great a threat to publishing as music-sharing has been to the
record labels? True, there is no real textual equivalent to the
"ripping" of a music CD. Most readers have little incentive to turn
libraries of books they have already read into shareable files, and
doing so is far more difficult than ripping a CD. It involves
either breaking open a coded file or tediously scanning a book,
page by page.

Still, only one person has to take the trouble, and within hours
millions of copies can be circulating on the Internet. Remember
that text files are very, very small compared with music or video.
A best-seller can be downloaded over a high-speed connection in a
matter of seconds. This scenario must cause publishers some
sleepless nights.

And the moment may be coming closer. In Japan, Sony and Panasonic
recently released new-generation reading devices that put clunky
predecessors like the SoftBook to shame. Sony's entry, called the
LIBRI, is particularly impressive, for it employs a technology
called "electronic ink," in which the screen is composed of tiny
"microcapsules" that can turn black or white through the
manipulation of an electronic field. While previous screen
technologies required an internal source of illumination,
electronic ink does not, making it easily readable even in full
sunlight and cutting back significantly on bulk and power
consumption. It also has greater resolution than previously
achieved. The LIBRI weighs only a little more than a pound, can run
for weeks on ordinary AAA batteries, and displays half a million
pixels on its six-inch screen--six times more than most PDAs. To
put things simply, it weighs the same as a book and looks very much
like paper (although it takes a frustratingly long time to "turn"
pages). For the moment, it is available only in black and white,
but full-color versions are said to be only a few years down the
road. And even the first-generation model costs less than $400.

But will the LIBRI succeed? At first, Sony and Panasonic both
repeated the disastrous strategy of allowing only proprietary
content, downloaded from special websites for a fee, onto the
devices, and Japanese publishers refused to make more than a
relative handful of titles available. Will people pay hundreds of
dollars for a reading device when they cannot use it to read work
documents or free books downloaded from websites of their own
choice? Will publishers make enough books available to persuade
readers to purchase such a limited device? I have my doubts. More
recently, both companies have made it possible to use the devices
to read other documents, but only after a complicated conversion
process that will repel most users. Sony has yet to announce a
release date for the LIBRI in the United States. I suspect that
such devices will only truly succeed when they have the full
capacities of computers- -so that readers can download Web pages
and electronic books onto them as easily as I now download my
research materials onto my laptop.


When this happens, it is entirely possible that a second Gutenberg
revolution will finally take place, bringing about the
long-discussed paperless office, together with the bookless
library. If I had an inexpensive, fullfunction computer that was
roughly the size and the weight of a hardcover novel, with a
high-resolution, paper-like color screen, a detachable keyboard,
and wireless Internet access, I would be quite happy to stop
squeezing new bookshelves into my basement and office.

But this scenario is not inevitable. The publishing industry can do
a great deal to frustrate it by refusing to make copyrighted
material easily available in electronic form for fear of piracy.
Traditional book-lovers can also do a certain amount to frustrate
it, by stigmatizing electronic publishing as the sign of a second
dark ages. And if demand for advanced reading devices remains low
as a result, then the electronics industry will not invest
significant resources in electronic ink, and the LIBRI will go the
way of the SoftBook.

The traditionalists may applaud this outcome, but they would be
wrong to do so. Frustrating the development of real "book-like"
reading devices will undoubtedly slow the transformation of
libraries into virtual information centers. It will slow the pace
at which books are scanned and then relegated to sub-basement
storage facilities. It will stave off the death of the academic
monograph. But it will not stop any of these things, not least
because the financial pressures bringing them about are too strong.
It will just make the electronic books we have--and we will have
more and more of them--unnecessarily awkward and difficult to read.
It will encourage searching rather than true reading, and turn
eyestrain into a new form of occupational hazard for scholars

It would be far better for publishers to learn from the
semi-disastrous experience of the music industry. Threatened by
Napster and its clones, the record labels initially tried to shut
down the new technology by heavy-handed legal tactics, but
eventually made songs available online themselves for a reasonable
price and with reasonable restrictions. And when they did,
consumers flocked to services such as Apple's iTunes. The
publishing industry would do well actively to plan for the day when
it will sell a majority of its products not on paper but over the
Internet, to consumers who will read them on new, attractive,
paper-like screens.

But what will happen to the experience of reading, particularly in
scholarship? Will traditional reading--the slow, serious reading of
entire texts--sink from sight in an ocean of hypertext searching?
We can at least hope not. Reading itself will surely change, for
the simple reason that new electronic devices, even if they look
and feel exactly like books, will still be different from them--far
more different than Gutenberg's books were from their printed
predecessors. For one thing, they will most likely be full-
function computers, with word-processing and Internet capability.
But we can hope that as the physical discomforts and frustrations
of reading on a screen diminish, more traditional sorts of reading
will find their way into cyberspace- -that readers, holding a
truly "readable" computer in their hands, will not abandon
themselves to searching and clicking, but will instead find it
comfortable to sit, and read slowly, and stop to ponder what they
have read.

And even the newer forms of reading are not to be entirely deplored.
For a start, they will encourage new works of scholarship to take
full advantage of the possibilities of hypertext and multimedia in
a way that the pioneering Gutenberg-e books, for the most part,
have not. Even more important, they will raise the simultaneously
glorious and terrifying possibility of having an entire world
library at one's fingertips. In any case, we need not assume that
one form of reading will entirely replace others. Different forms
have always co-existed with one another. Before Gutenberg, when
books were rare and expensive, the dominant form was probably the
slow, intensive, repetitive study of sacred and quasi-sacred texts.
It may have remained so even during the first centuries of
printing, but gradually it was challenged by more "extensive" sorts
of reading, involving the relatively quick, onetime perusal of books
for entertainment and the speedy acquisition of information. But
the first sort never disappeared, and of course it still exists in
many settings. Now, with the Internet, have come yet newer styles.
But they, too, can co-exist with older varieties, especially within
the academy.

Perhaps this is too sanguine a view. But scholars are, after all,
professional readers. The books that they read are likely, as time
goes on, to have a physical existence only as evanescent electrical
patterns on delicate pieces of machinery, and this technology will
affect the way they read. As long as the things they read are as
physically easy to read as paper books, scholars need not be
overwhelmed by their new world of choices, any more than the
scholars of the Renaissance were overwhelmed when faced with the
sudden explosion of books brought by the printing press itself
(although they certainly had to invent new strategies to deal with
it). Those scholars adapted and flourished; and so can we. The
bookless future need not be a barbarian age. The character of our
culture will finally be determined in the old way, not by the form
of words and ideas, but by their content.

By David A. Bell

For more stories, like the New Republic on Facebook:

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools