Today, we wonder what books have that computers
cannot replace. 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.
I want to try an idea on
you. I've been talking with friends lately about
the fate of books. Will some form of electronic
book replace paper books during our lifetimes?
In another episode I argue that books are too
perfect a technology to be replaced. As computer
screens become more readable -- as memory and speed
increase -- they'll bypass paper books but not
replace them. Computers will create such a
different kind of reading experience that books
will have to remain.
That's fine, many people tell me, but they still
wonder what paper books have that mature electronic
books won't soon have as well? In one recent
conversation it dawned on me what sets books apart:
it is that books are mentors and computers are
We all switch between the roles of parent and
child. We need some control over things around us.
But we also need to submit to other people's
knowledge. In some things, we should play the
parent. In others, we'd better know how to be a
And the child says, "Tell me a story." The story we
choose might be a Gothic novel. It might be a math
textbook. In either case we have to give ourselves
over to the storyteller if we hope to profit from
the story. We do that when we read a book, go to
the theater, even listen to a concert.
Computer communications are quite another matter.
Once we master a computer, it does our bidding. We
say, "Go and do. Buy me an airplane ticket. Give me
a stock quotation. Tell me if the library has a
book. Pass this message to a friend." The computer
dances to our tune. We are in control.
When you and I go to the computer for text
material, it's to look things up. It's not to let
words wash over us nor to touch and feel paper. The
computer is far better than a book if you want to
find things. Insofar as paper books function as
simple repositories of fact, they've already given
way to computers.
But the sort of book we submit ourselves to will
remain at its best when it's written out and
uncontrollable -- when it's on paper. It's an
important omen that as stories appear on computers
they begin offering readers control over the story.
It's no accident that you can already buy computer
books which let you dictate the course of the plot.
To learn, we become as children. We seek out our
own ignorance. Now and then we follow the mind of
someone who knows what we do not. We yield to the
rhythm of the storyteller. Printed books let us lay
control aside for a while. That's the wonderful
gift books offer. The electronic media, for all
they give us, are headed in exactly the opposite
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds