Arts & Culture » Books

Paper cuts

Italo Calvino once wrote, “Reading means approaching something that is just coming into being.”

But if that’s true, why do most publishers still use the same basic bookmaking techniques that Gutenberg used? Perhaps it’s because, even today, nothing else is as convenient and easy to read as a newspaper or paper book.

Recent advances may change that. According to Web guru Jakob Nielson, online information will fully replace books by 2007.

“Legacy publishers be warned,” he admonishes in his international bestseller Designing Web Usability, “This will happen.” So say goodbye to dead trees and plant pulp. The paperless society is on its way.

Still, the idea that technology will eliminate our reliance on paper has been around since the introduction of the first computer.

So what’s different now? Several things — including new display technologies that may finally make reading from a screen a comfortable experience. But more importantly, a series of related scientific advances are happening simultaneously, each reinforcing the argument that the end of paper is finally at hand.

Quality

People don’t immediately think of books or magazines as having better image quality than fancy PC screens. But with glossy stock and color photography, they usually do. However, computer display technology is rapidly catching up, and may soon equal that of its print counterpart.

A company called E Ink (eink.com) is pioneering a digital ink that can display rewritable text and images on nearly any surface. Since it’s made from the same basic materials as regular ink and paper, “e ink” retains the superior viewing characteristics of paper. And guess what? It’s just a few years away from market viability.

Portability

Starting in 1998, companies such as Nuvomedia released the world’s first electronic books, complete with onboard memory and the ability to store several volumes at a time. But products such as the Rocket eBook, while somewhat small, felt more like notebook computers than books. Worse still, they were pricey and hard to find in stores.

That may change with Franklin’s new eBookMan, a $129.95 device that looks more like a Palm Pilot than an iBook. About the size of a paperback, it lets users download news, stories and other content from the Web. Plus, it contains a full-function calendar and address book.

If you’re a purist who simply must have pages to turn (rather than an interactive screen), IBM is planning something just for you. Dubbed the eNewspaper, the device marries digital ink technology with flexible plastic viewing sheets that resemble paper. The result is a device that looks and works very much like a real newspaper, yet is digital and reusable. IBM is working on a prototype eNewspaper now, and predicts it can bring a working model to market in about four years.

Feature set

Booklike portability and display quality are the long-awaited killer applications of paperless publishing. But it’s the so-called “come-along” technologies that will likely ensure the success of electronic books.

Recent advances in memory miniaturization will allow one electronic book to store the equivalent of thousands of regular novels. Meanwhile, Web-derived features such as instant searching and hyperlinks will connect individual works to each other. And the potential for the creation of new kinds of interactive fiction is enormous.

But ultimately, the biggest attraction for publishers may be the bottom line: price. Since electronic books are completely digital, publishers will be able to produce them for a fraction of a regular bound volume’s cost.

Amazon.com has already formed an alliance with Microsoft to make the software company’s new Reader software the preferred content format for Amazon’s future e-bookstore. With the coming maturity of wireless Internet, it won’t be long before you’ll be able to purchase Stephen King’s latest novel — and read it — while riding the bus to work.

But if forecasters such as Jakob Nielson are right, and the paperless society isn’t just a fancifully novel idea, does that mean paper books will go away?

Probably not. Perhaps they will live on for years in some subordinate role, due to our long-cultivated affection for them. After all, unlike the temporal nature of e-publishing, traditional books serve as tangible reminders of what we have read, or what we have yet to experience.

Adam Druckman reads everything online at metrotimes.com. E-mail him at adruckman@metrotimes.com

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