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Beautiful, perfect, supreme chunk of paper

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End of the book? Peter Crawshaw from Lovereading.co.uk gives his view.

Stephen Bayley
Another electronic book reader has arrived, ready to do battle with its paper cousins. But, writes cultural critic Stephen Bayley, it faces an uphill struggle against a truly beautiful knowledge delivery platform.

What is the most flexible, intelligent, interactive data retrieval system yet to appear?

It's the book.

As a source of high density data storage, the book offers unparalleled ease of access. Data can be retrieved in sequence or at random. Image and text can be presented in any variation of density.

Hand-writing did not replace speech, wood-block print did not replace hand-writing

In addition, books are inexpensive and available in many different formats, colours, shapes, sizes and weights. The book is readily portable and requires no energy or lubricants to maintain. Being modular, it is easy to store.

Oh, and probably lasts forever. If eternity does not appeal to the owner, the book can be easily recycled. No wonder books have been popular for a thousand years or so.

With the arrival of the ingenious Sony Reader it's worth making the case for the book. There will be an appreciative market for electronic reading systems among weight-conscious travellers, but books are not going to disappear in a Gotterdammerung of pixellation.

Changed perceptions

No new communications technology has ever wholly replaced its predecessor. Handwriting did not replace speech, wood-block print did not replace handwriting. Radio did not succeed print. Television lives side-by-side with radio. And so on.

What happens is that any new medium changes our perceptions of existing media and we adjust our behaviour and taste to fit.

First unexpurgated Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover
Books do furnish a room, Anthony Powell suggested

And so it will be with the book when electronic readers become commonplace. It may be the end of the cheap paperback, but a new era of more expensive books will be a pleasing stimulus to publishers and a new source of delight to human readers.

After all, the value of books is not determined by literary content alone. Colour, shape, texture and even smell are all elements of the reader's enjoyment. Better papers, more adventurous design, and quality typography are all now delicious prospects.

Already there are signs that this is happening.

Blockbuster is a lazy old expression... until now. Just published by FMR in Bologna is an, as it were, ground-breaking volume on Michelangelo. Its cover is real marble and shows in miniature the Madonna della Scala, a bas-relief from the Casa Buonarotti.

With original photographs by Aurelio Amendola, Michelangelo: La dotta mano (Michelangelo: The learned hand) is guaranteed for 500 years, weighs 21kg and costs $155,000 (£87,000).

So, just when we are being told print is dead or dying - the Guardian Media Group's Alan Rusbridger has said his new printing presses are the last they will ever buy - someone invents the luxury book.

Books, as any visitor to a civilised house knows, do furnish a room. Books never look untidy, even when piled in tumbling stacks.

Transatlantic flight boon

They have sculptural presence and provide islands of interest wherever they are found. What precious insights into an individual's psychology are revealed in the hierarchy of display with the books in the loo and the books on a drawing room table? The knowing and sly host can play unsettling games in this arena.

A furtive scroll through a Sony Reader's files will never be quite so fascinating. True, no-one in their right mind would want to carry the print equivalent of Sony's electronic library of 160 volumes on a transatlantic flight. But, on the other hand, the Bodleian or the Laurenziana or the National Library of Wales would not be quite so glorious if their shelves were stacked with Sony Readers, especially ones with dead batteries.

There is something sensuous, possibly even erotic, about the book. It appeals to both the senses and the intellect as well as to your hidden interior designer. And what curious pleasures are to be found in antiquarian bookshops - the market for used Sony Readers will perhaps never be quite so attractive.

And the best evidence of all for the immortality of the book? By 1995 Nicholas Negroponte director of MIT's futurophiliac Media Lab had become completely convinced of the absolute primacy of electronics. How did Negroponte choose to explain himself to the world? He published a paper and ink book called Being Digital.

Negroponte fell in love with the most flexible, intelligent, interactive data retrieval system yet to appear.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I think he is wrong about communication technology never becoming obsolete - you just need to look at the cassette or VHS (or in a few years the CD) to see that. However I believe that books will never become obsolete as, unlike music, it is very rare that people will need to carry around more than one paperback - the most probable eventual use I can see for these readers is as large technical reference manuals.
Nigel de Grey, London, UK

There's also the factor of health and stress - reading from a screen makes my eyes tired and gives me headaches, but reading a decent size print does not.
Harriet R, Bristol, UK

Just as the digital age promised the 'paperless office' and generated more not less paper, the electronic book will likely be purchased and used by the few. I don't think people really want another gadget to carry around, let alone have the need to have hundreds of books at their fingertips.
Peter B, Watford, UK

I love books, I really do. I have a small library at home however, I love the idea of the Sony Ereader. Why? I can read a standard paperback in the time it takes to go on the train from Bristol to Nuneaton. If I'm doing this journey both ways... I need two books to keep me occupied. With the Ereader, it won't weigh me down on public transport. That's not to say I'll stop curling up with a good book - no chance! It just means I can take my reading material with me without carrying multitudes of books... oh, and listen to music as well... I won't have to replace the iPod that just stopped working!
Jen, Nuneaton

Books, Books! They will always be a part of man´s life and culture. The new media...electronic book, will be liked but it is limited due to batteries. When a perpetual battery powered by the sun is invented then and only then will paper books fade from use. Imagine 1000 years from today when future archaeologists dig and find ebooks with dead and obsolete batteries? How can they read it? For this century, the paper book is king and electronic bok is convenience.
Carl Lawrence, San José, Costa Rica

Despite being an IT professional with technologies, methodologies and gadgets galore spilling out all over the place, I would never, ever give up a proper printed book when it comes to my reading. Paper books have an intrinsic place in culture throughout history and have come to represent anything form learning to relaxation. They can be given as tokens of respect, friendship or love and received in the same manner. When were you ever disappointed to receive a book? Would you feel the same to receive a PDF in your email? I doubt it!
Will Shaw, Barnsley, UK

Books smell good. I noticed this more when I was younger. Every book has a distinctive smell, especially when new. On-line books just can't compete.
Clive Shergold, Middlesbrough, UK

The book is a wonderful medium for distributing information and almost certainly well continue to be one for a long time. However I can't help but sense a little nostalgia here. I am willing to bet that people in many years time will be saying the same about 'beautiful, prefect, supreme' EBooks when some new technology comes to beam information directly into your mind?
Michael Hodgson, Portsmouth

I read this on a computer.
Chris, London


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