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Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 19:22 GMT
Books: Is the writing on the wall?

Books: Has the last chapter been written?
More than 500 years after the invention of the printing press, some are predicting the death of the book and suggest its obituary will be written on the computer screens of the world wide web.

E-cyclopedia
In our wired age, it is argued, the humble paperback and the leather-bound encyclopedia are as irrelevant as stone tablets.

The internet has been heralded as the new frontier of learning. Every school will be hooked up to the immense resources of the web, it has been promised.

In this climate, books have been vilified. A recent study showed that some school children are lugging around book-filled bags of up to half their own body weight.


Bricks-and-mortar bookshops are going online
There is the question of why modern textbooks - packed with illustrations and graphics - cannot be transferred on to light-weight CD Roms.

Those who waste valuable web time lurking in book stores and fill their homes with dust-gathering tomes are being made to feel increasingly anachronistic.

Book squirm

Of course, these Luddites will tell you it is hard to snuggle up with a bulky VDU. And the average pupil will counter that when it comes to cramming for an exam on the school bus - you can't beat a book.

Tim Godfray, executive director of the Booksellers Association, reckons the bell is yet to toll for the old-fashioned book.

"The e-book is about to arrive - but in no way will it replace the printed version."

Mr Godfray's organisation - which represents High Street stores and internet companies like Amazon - toyed with the idea of removing the word "book" from its title altogether.

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The printed word can still spark heated debate
However, the "durable, portable" medium was deemed too healthy to pension off.

"People love books and there is no question in our minds that the printed word will be around for a long time."

The internet may even be the friend of the book lover. Bricks-and-mortar book shops have followed the lead of e-companies and begun to sell their wares online.

Paper's back

Retailers are even considering in-store printers, capable of giving customers hard copies of any title held on the database.

"These are very interesting times in our industry," says Mr Godfray. "The internet is having an impact on the way books reach the customer."

President Clinton using a computer
Reading books from a screen may become the norm
Some internet sites have made an express effort to see off paper - offering a range of classic and unpublished fiction online.

Many of us may shy away from downloading Tolstoy's War and Peace for fear that a month of reading from a computer screen will damage our eyes.

But Steven Bailey, an ophthalmologist at a top London teaching hospital, says with a modern monitor in the correct environment such fears are unfounded.

"There is no evidence to suggest it will do your eyes any harm."

Paper power

However, the real challenge to the traditional book could come not from the computer but "electronic paper".

Saul Griffith, a scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points to the massive amount of energy that conventional computers use.

MIT's invention under a microscope
The tiny spheres in 'electronic paper' may re-write history
"To read a book off a desktop PC or laptop is pretty impractical."

MIT is just one of the institutions racing to perfect "electronic paper" - a layer of tiny plastic spheres, each containing a disk suspended in liquid.

A small electric charge causes each disk to float or sink, so that the sphere appears black or white.

Once the words and images have been built up no further current is required until the page is updated.

With the addition of a memory source or a radio transmitter the low-power device could become a truly portable library - a world of knowledge on a single A4 sheet.

As well as being more energy efficient than a computer the device will also avoid the cost and environmental impact of printing and distributing books.

However, with around 500 million hardbacks and paperbacks sold in the UK last year it may be far too early to write off the trusted old book.


The E-cyclopedia can be contacted at e-cyclopedia@bbc.co.uk

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