Book World 25th Anniversary

Historic highlights from Book World reviews of the:
1970s | 1980s | 1990s

Hardcover Bestsellers, 1972-1996


The Book World staff picks its favorites of the last quarter-century.

Editor Nina King ponders the vagaries of becoming a bestseller.

Jonathan Yardley, Carolyn See and Kunio Francis Tanabe write of their personal experiences as critics.

Marie Arana-Ward explores the relationship between publisher and critic.

Jabari Asim celebrates a flourishing of African American literature.

Michael Dirda comments on the state of fiction.

David Nicholson speculates on the future of books in a technological age.

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There's a Book in Your Future

By David Nicholson
Sunday, June 1, 1997

A few years ago, Sony sent me for review a new product called the Bookman. About the size of a hardcover book, it opened to reveal a small LCD screen and a keyboard. You lifted the keyboard to insert a CD-ROM. I'm not sure what happened to the Bookman -- I haven't seen one in stores for a while -- but the fact that commuters aren't using them on the Metro is evidence that alternatives to the printed book are probably going to have a hard time finding acceptance.

The Bookman was so slow that you moved from page to page (screen to screen) at the machine's convenience instead of your own. As an information storage and retrieval device, it might have been perfect for traveling salesmen or the managers of auto parts stores, who could have carried the equivalent of a shelf full of catalogs on a handful of CD-ROMs, each featuring text, pictures and sound. But for the rest of us -- people who read for relaxation and for entertainment, as well as for information -- it made reading a chore instead of a pleasure.

As I look forward to the next 25 years, I don't foresee the familiar book in its hardcover or paperback form being replaced by digital equivalents. Still, I wanted other opinions, so I asked several people with an interest in computers, software and the digital revolution that continues to transform our lives for their thoughts on the future of the book. Without exception, they said they believed books as we know them will still be here a quarter of a century from now.

"Books do have an important future in the information age," said Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT laboratory for computer science and author of What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives. Another writer, David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, agreed. "I do not think that books as we know them are becoming obsolete in a physical sense," he said, adding that "books on paper are not going to disappear."

One reason Shenk cited for his belief is the trustworthiness inherent in the physicality of paper. "People like paper," he said, "not only because it has a higher resolution than computer screens -- they like paper because it is static. It's dependable. You can put it down and it doesn't disappear and the information on it doesn't get moved around . . . Paper works, and I don't think we much want to replace it."

The way we read books is different from the way we read information on a computer screen. We tend to surrender to an author, following the path he has laid out for us. By contrast we tend to explore hypertext -- the melange of images, sound and text linked by keywords -- and to make our own paths. This difference, said Dertouzos, also helps make books more trustworthy, because they "tend to build up gradually solid and long-lasting concepts in the reader's head, compared to the more impressionistic and rapid images found by video/virtual reality."

But there are other, more concrete reasons books are more attractive than their digital equivalents. Buy a book and you get an object, a "real and tangible purchase" you can hold in your hand, is how Craig Bartholomew, general manager of Microsoft Corp.'s Reference Group (it publishes the Encarta Encyclopedia on CD-ROM) puts it. By contrast, Bartholomew observed, people have so far been less willing to buy access to information, which is intangible. "As a result," he said, "there is little financial incentive for commercial publishers to 'publish' content online."

Book lovers agree. "Nothing can replace the feeling of wandering the aisles of a bookstore or library," says writer and editor Sara Henry, "picking tomes at random, never knowing when you're going to find something great."

Books also have economics in their favor, said Bartholomew. "The cost to typeset and print a book is very reasonable," he said, as compared to the expense of "adding in all the multimedia components," such as video, audio and images, for a CD-ROM. Then, too, because the form of the book as we know it -- pages glued or sewn inside hard- or softcovers -- works so well, there is little incentive for publishers to change. The book, Bartholomew said, "is portable, pleasing to hold, has an amazingly simple interface (table of contents, chapters, index), and is easy to access quickly."

Still, while the future of the book may seem secure, it's arguable whether it will continue to dominate our culture in the same way that it has for the past several hundred years. "We may be moving away from a book culture, relegating books to the margins of society," Shenk observed.

"What is happening is that information is now moving so rapidly, communication is so instantaneous, that our culture is quite literally speeding up," he said. "We communicate in quick E-mail and voice mail bursts and fast-breaking news updates, and in the process we leave the deliberative thoughtfulness of book reading behind. We may be still buying books and even reading parts of them, but they are less and less the driving force behind culture, simply because they move so slowly.

"My great fear is that future generations will grow up in such a speedy, connected environment that they can't or won't slow down enough to read books. Interactivity can be useful in education, but it is not a replacement for reading quietly, slowly, letting words spur the reader's imagination."

Other factors may also hasten the supplanting of the book as the culture's dominant medium. Microsoft's Bartholomew cautions that "over time, there are any number of unpredictable factors that could change the future of the book in the digital age."

"Paper prices could rise so fast that publishers are forced to look for digital alternatives," he said. "Portable computers could become better suited to displaying books in an attractive way with instant boot [start-up] features for quick access."

And, in fact, Dertouzos foresees that "E-book appliances, based on a flat screen display and a replaceable memory medium, will no doubt emerge within the next three years . . . Some day we may even see a new kind of easily portable 'paper,' where ink spots will rearrange themselves to new messages and patterns."

As a long-time technology buff who owns two computers and would own two more if he could afford them, I don't find that last prospect very appealing. Yes, I know that books didn't always exist as they do today. Humans have preserved their words on wood, papyrus, clay tablets, and sheets of papyrus. For centuries, monks copied manuscripts letter by letter, only to have their particular set of skills supplanted by the printing press. But just because change is inevitable doesn't make it more appealing. Plastic scratches and dulls, but it doesn't age the way cloth and paper do, won't ever have the pleasing old-book smell a 50-year-old first edition does, won't invite the same musings that holding an old book invites -- Who owned this? Who read it? Who lost themselves in it as I have and may again? Who found his life changed, if only for a little while? The world would be poorer without a medium that invites that same solitary sensory experience.

David Nicholson, whose reviews appear in The Post on Tuesdays, was a Book World assistant editor for 10 years. He can be reached at nicholsd@clark.net.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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