Home > Etext > The Screen and the Book

The Screen and the Book: Whither or wither reading in the computer age?
by Terrence Berres

To trace the developing connections and conflicts between print and electronic media, start with As We May Think by Vannevar Bush. This article was originally published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Bush proposed a universal reference source based on then-existing technology, i.e., not based on computers.
     If the web is a universal reference source, it is based on the now-existing computer technology, both hardware and software. To learn about the hardware, continue with A Brief History of the Internet . About the software, go on to A New Home for the Mind? This article by Ted Nelson appeared in the March 1982 Datamation Magazine. In it, Nelson correctly fortold today's technologies: simple desktop computer interfaces, the World Wide Web, network agents, and Hypertext Markup Language.
     The web is today often foreseen to be the replacement for the store, including the book store, even the used book store. For example, Advanced Book Exchange, Bibliofind, and Alibris (formerly Interloc) maintain databases of the inventories of participating used and antiquarian booksellers.
     The web has even been predicted as the replacement for the book itself. NetLibrary uses the internet for providing books on-line to its subscribers. Electronic readers are now on the market under the names Rocket eBook and Softbook. Both require purchasing the reading material. Each uses its own electronic text format. eBookCity provides books in the VersaBook format. There are also electronic texts in formats for personal digital assitants ("palm-top computers") available at MemoWare and Peanut Press. eBooksOnThe.net presents and electronic book club. Work is also in progress on an open standard for ebooks. Microsoft Reader is an example of one project to develop improved ebook software. eBookNet reviews developments in electronic publishing.
     Don't want to pay? Many books are published on the web and can be read for free. The On-Line Books Page at Carnegie Mellon University lists most of them.
     How did these books get there? Many did so through Project Gutenberg. Volunteers select books in the public domain, convert them to electronic text, and Project Gutenberg publishes them on the web. The Project Gutenberg electronic texts are ASCII or plain etext, resembling a typed page on your screen and without the hyperlinks characteristic of the web.
     Many books have been republished as hypertexts. For example, see Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. This hyperbook uses hyperlinks to connect the table of contents to the listed chapters and appendices and to connect to footnotes and other notes from the text. For another example, see Poems by Emily Dickinson.
     Fineprint produces software which prints multiple pages of on-screen text on a single sheet of paper.
     But will reading as we know it survive conversion to electronic media? Sven Birkerts has doubts, expressed in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and some of his other writings.

Selected Bibliography

Long live the codex

Revised July 24, 2005.