Books: old and new

Is the book dead? In this electronic age, every now and then, fresh pronouncements of the death of the book are heard. Books stand for going from left to right, logic, concentration, and insight. Television, CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web are about jumping from one point to another without regard for the flow of logic or narration; they reflect a bias towards information at the expense of insight; a bias for images at the expense of thought. There is no doubt that "the masses" prefer these alternative channels over classic books.

Yet, year after year, book sales show no sign of subsiding, and the book industry is going from strength to strength. As the world economy becomes increasingly knowledge-driven, books are gaining importance as the central mechanism for the transfer of knowledge. For all the complaints about moving electrons being cheaper than moving atoms, more books are printed year after year on dead trees than ever before in human history.

In this article, we look at three strikingly new adaptations of "the book" in the electronic age. Each of these opens new opportunities for users and producers of books, to rethink the mechanics of how books are produced and consumed; each offers dramatic cost savings compared with traditional technology. All three ideas exploit new technology, yet they are focused upon the traditional book - in contrast with the attempt made by TV, CD-ROMs and the WWW to move away from the book format altogether.

Project Gutenberg. In 1971, Michael Hart began "Project Gutenberg" (named after the inventor of the printing press). The goals of this project are to make books (with expired copyrights) freely available. This project is based on volunteers typing in the text of books. To ensure maximum accessibility, Project Gutenberg uses the lowest common denominator of computer file formats: plain text. Any computer can use these files.

Today, there are 2115 books which you can get from Project Gutenberg for free. These range over On War by Clausewitz, novels by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Kipling; plays by Shakespeare; poetry by Blake, Plato and Socrates, stories by Jack London, all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, reference works, history, etc. This is a library with 2,115 books at a price of zero. Roughly 50 new books are being released every month.

It is not hard to put these on CD-ROM and distribute the CDs for Rs.50 each. This is a classic illustration of how technical change alters growth possibilities. One generation ago, the capital cost of equipping a school or college with these books was Rs.6 lakh or so (assuming cheap editions existed). Today, this capital cost has come down to Rs.25,000, thanks to Project Gutenberg. This is a example of how modern technology makes it possible to ``catch up'' at a much lower cost than that paid by advanced countries many decades ago.

The cost of books is an important hurdle in the extent to which they are deployed in India. I became acutely conscious of how this can make a difference when I noticed how the wonderful books (in the IT area) published by O'Reilly have become so much more commonplace in India after low--priced Indian editions became available. Earlier, O'Reilly books were prestigious and exclusive books found at libraries (many individuals clutched illegally xeroxed copies). After the low--priced Indian editions became available, almost everyone in India's IT sector owns personal copies of O'Reilly books.

Electronic books. There are two companies which are trying to build a new kind of appliance: these are the silicon valley start-ups Softbook Press and NuvoMedia, respectively the makers of the Softbook and Rocket eBook. Both these products consist of a screen which is physically the size of an A4 page. The appliance stores the text of books and displays them astonishingly well (much better than most computer screens). There are buttons to turn the page. These appliances recreate the portability and visual aesthetics of books, and make possible the posture that most people adopt when reading books.

With both products, the user is supposed to load the electronic text of a few books at a time into the device and then carry it anywhere for the purpose of reading. Imagine loading up a few books into the device before leaving for a vacation.

These appliances make it possible for authors to bypass the overheads of publishers, distributors, paper factories, printers and book-shops. Once such appliances are ubiquitous, Arundhati Roy will sell her novels directly to readers for a price of Rs.50 over the Internet: the text of the book will be loaded from the net into such an appliance. All the intermediaries will be cut out of this fundamental relationship between the author and the reader.

Each of these vendors now offers a modest array of original books that are available in their format. One can only hope that both these vendors ensure that the 2,115 books freely available from Project Gutenberg are immediately available at 0 cost for their appliances.

Octave. The last innovation described here is the brainchild of venerable computer scientist (and co-founder of Adobe) John Warnock in 1997. It is focused upon rare books. Imagine the original edition of Galileo Galilei's ``The Sidereal Messenger'' -- published in 1610 -- complete with drawings of what Galileo saw when he peered through the world's first telescope. Or consider the original text by Copernicus, which launched the scientific revolution and irreversibly altered the future of the world. Octavo Corporation is creating remarkable CD-ROMs containing detailed scanned images of such rare books and manuscripts. The CD-ROMs depict these manuscripts exactly as they are: complete with water stains, paper grain, holes in the paper, etc.

CD-ROMs do not capture the feeling and smells of an ancient leather--bound volume. However, these CD-ROMs -- starting from $20 -- are accessible to ordinary people, who might have never got an opportunity to see the original books. Original texts of this sort are always hidden away in private collections or museums. Octave also adds value in terms of juxtaposing the images of original texts with translations, hyper-links, etc. The CD-ROMs are not hard-coded to the poor screen resolution which is common on computer monitors today: they are future--proof insofar as the scanned images are stored at extraordinarily high resolutions, which will only become in desktop computers in the years to come.

I admire John Warnock, and Octavo. The books that they are archiving, and making available to all, are our intellectual heritage; they are the greatest achievements of the human race; and they were never accessible to me before Octavo came along.

In conclusion. Project Gutenberg; electronic book appliances; Octavo: each of these is a powerful idea about how the depth of the traditional book can be married with modern technology. None of these represents a retreat to the fluffy approach of a CD-ROM such as Microsoft Encarta.

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