February 18, 2007

The Orange County Register

The End of the Book?

By Marla Jo Fisher

Cavemen used charcoal to write on walls. Ancient Egyptians scrawled hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls. Medieval monks penned illuminated manuscripts on parchment. Then Johannes Gutenberg changed the world with movable type, making writing available to all.

Now a revolution is under way that is rapidly making ink on paper obsolete. Books as we know them are dead, many experts say.

But questions go unanswered as technology advances. How can we preserve the world's knowledge in rapidly evolving electronic formats? How can copyrights be protected when books can be duplicated in the blink of an eye?

What will we bring to the beach to read on a summer afternoon?

Volumes of mashed wood pulp, bound in animal hides and stored on a shelf, will soon be obsolete.

So what's going to replace them?

Teeny, tiny little devices that will fit on your key chain and have enough storage to hold electronic versions of every book in the Library of Congress, according to the founder of Project Gutenberg, which seeks to put every book in the public domain online so people can download free.

"I just bought a $13 RAM stick at Target that holds 1 gigabyte of information," said Michael Hart, founder of the nonprofit Project Gutenberg. "You could put 200 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare or a couple thousand ordinary books on there. Every book you ever read in your life."

Hart, an avid reader, began his life's work in 1971. In those days, people thought the idea was crazy.

"By 2021, I predict, you will be able to buy the same RAM stick with 32 terabytes," Hart said. "That means every word in every major library in the world – you could carry them all around your neck or on your key chain."

In 1988, when only 250,000 people could access the Internet, Hart created a sensation when he and volunteers successfully put "Alice in Wonderland" online.

"That was the breakthrough," Hart said. "Kids dragged their parents to the computer to read it. People were sending me e-mails and stopping me on the street. That was when I realized we had made it. It was going to work."

Today, his project and its affiliates around the world provide downloads of 2 million free books a month to people in more than 100 countries to spur literacy and what Hart and his associates hope will be a new Golden Age of knowledge.

Since Hart's groundbreaking work, access to electronic information has vastly expanded. Today, people read books on their laptops, cell phones and iPods, as well as a new generation of electronic book readers about the size of a paperback.

The director of the Huntington Library in San Marino, one of the world's great repositories for rare books and manuscripts, disagrees with experts who say the printed book is dead.

"When radio came along, people said no one would read newspapers," Director David Zeidberg said. "When television was invented, people said no one would listen to the radio. But those media continue to thrive in their own right, and we have much wider options."

Book lovers such as Zeidberg, of course, might enjoy reading online but still seek the tactile experience of holding a beloved book, enjoying the sight of books on a shelf, marking up a favorite copy.

Meanwhile, changes in publishing technology not only affect readers but also have global economic and political consequences.

In Europe, it was the German inventor's creation of his printing press, coupled with the rise of the university system in Europe, that launched a new age of science, arts and discovery in the West.

Before movable type, books were either handwritten or made with laboriously carved wooden block printing. All books were locked in monastery libraries, where monks spent a year or more copying them by hand.

The printing press allowed the dissemination of both new discoveries and ancient knowledge to a broad audience, allowing scientists and scholars for the first time to share information widely.

"Fifty years after Gutenberg's printing press, there were more books in circulation than had been produced in the thousand years preceding," Hart said.

In this century, the decision by the U.S. government to create a network of computers that could be linked to provide defense in a nuclear attack had consequences no one could have predicted: the Internet, which links individuals and businesses around the world in the blink of an eye.

The rapid adoption of the World Wide Web as a tool by people around the world has led companies such as Google to launch initiatives similar to Project Gutenberg.

Google seeks to scan and make searchable every book in existence. Its quest is opposed by book publishers who believe their copyrights are being violated, as well as by people who don't want the world's knowledge controlled by one for-profit company.

Another issue brewing in the world of digital books is how to preserve all this knowledge in the face of near-constant change in technological platforms.

While illuminated manuscripts from 900 years ago are well-preserved and still readable, electronic storage formats have gone through a dizzying series of transformations, from wax cylinders to record albums to magnetic tapes to floppy disks to CDs and DVDs to MP3s.

Meanwhile, experiments are under way not only with new forms of publishing a book, but also new forms of creating one.

UC Irvine professor Ramesh Jain has spent years studying what he calls "organic books," which change and evolve online.

"At one time, books were static objects, bound and frozen in time," Jain said. "Now an organic book is a living document."

In the future, Jain said people will be able to view electronic books in their own preferred formats and interact with them in a way impossible with a printed text.

Already, electronic books let readers change font size and have searchable text and embedded annotations. For example, someone who forgets one of the enormous cast of characters in Tolstoy's "War and Peace" can click on the name and be reminded.

Experiments under way allow readers to read and "mark up" digital texts with their own notes, exactly as they might have done with a highlighter on paper.

The Institute for the Future of Books at USC is trying to create a program that will let people easily write their own multimedia books, theoretically as easily as picking up a pencil.

Mitchell Stevens, an author and professor at New York University, began a blog in 2005 where people could comment on his as-yet-unpublished book "Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief."

"It was a good experience," Stevens said afterward. "People told me things I didn't know, and I also had time to work out some of my thoughts online. The down side was that the half-hour I spent on it every day was a half-hour I could have been slogging through the library."

Several sites have free-flowing, reader-written novels, allowing the online visitor to write part of the narrative.

At the end of January, Penguin Books launched "A Million Penguins," a reader-written book that the company has dubbed "a collaborative, wiki-based creative-writing exercise," at www.amillionpenguins.com.

Stevens, who did his experiment at the request of the USC institute, predicted that "a book is not going to be a book anymore in the future.

"Everyone will distribute it online," Stevens said. "It will not exist as a collection of lines of print. Everyone will want something different from a book. It's an exciting moment in history."
The End of the Book?