Today we ask, "What'll become of books?" The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
One question I'm asked more
than any other is, "Will the computer replace the
book?" At first I flatly said, "No! The book is too
perfect a technology to be replaced."
Then I began waffling. "Well, maybe paper books
eventually will give way to small, hand-held,
thumb-operated computers with many books stored in
I recently saw such a book. It was gathering dust
in a computer store. It was bulky and primitive. It
cost far too much. The supply of texts was
miserable. So was the screen. Still, this was the
stalking-horse of real change.
So far, resolution is far worse for computer
screens than it is for paper. Subliminal flicker
also makes screens harder to read. But we'll solve
those problems. We'll improve data storage and
miniaturization to boot. Electronic books will be
more efficient than paper books soon enough.
So, are paper books doomed? Oddly enough, they're
not. Think about pianos. Pianos evolved from
harpsichord improvements. But soon they were
something wholly different. You still need a
harpsichord for harpsichord music. In this century,
cars replaced horses. But cars aren't much use in
rough, roadless country.
Many technologies survive their replacements that
way. Live concerts have survived recordings. Pens
survive word processors.
Electronic books will soon have features you never
imagined in paper books. They'll have colored
pictures that move, spoken words, and background
music. And that's just the beginning.
Computer books will invite reader participation.
Press a button to look up a word or read a source
reference -- right on screen. Straight-through
story lines will give way to mosaic elements that
readers can manipulate. We're already seeing
variable story lines in the fancier computer games.
As we abandon the limitations of the paper book,
the electronic book will become unrecognizably
different. It'll become so different that the paper
book will have to survive, after all.
And it'll be more than an antiquarian delight. Like
the horse or the harpsichord, paper books will keep
right on doing what they've always done so well.
They take you into the author's mind. You give
yourself over to her story-telling rhythm. Your own
mind frames the pictures and plays the music. You
feel organic cloth and paper under your fingers.
Once they come, electronic books will have about as
much in common with paper books as the horseless
carriage has in common with the horse. They'll be
so different from the books we know that they
cannot replace them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kurzweil, R., The Future of Libraries, Part 1: The
Technology of the Book; Part 2: The End of Books;
Part 3: The Virtual Library. Library
Journal, January 1992, pp. 80, 82; February
15, 1992, pp. 140-141; March 15, 1992, pp. 63-64.
Coover, R., The End of Books. The New York
Times Book Review, June 21, 1992, pp. 11,
I am grateful to Judy Myers, University of Houston
Library, for the Kurzweil articles and for ongoing
discussions about books and their potential for
For more on the future of books, see Episode 877.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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