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Cybervision vs. the book -- or is it the mind?


Now they're chattering that the book is doomed, roadkill on the information superhighway.

Of course, as every literate school child knows, Paul Delaroche, on first seeing a photograph in 1839 (some claim 1840), said: "From today painting is dead." Oh, that Pauley, he was a visionary! We should all be relieved that 155 years later he's not around burning down museums, cluttered as they are with daubings done after he left us, presumably resentful, in 1856.

So what's this book fuss?

Simply, it is the argument that electronic progress is on the threshold of making obsolete the use of paper by printing on it, especially in large quantity, which means books - as we have known them since 1490-something.

These visionaries say that within a few years computers will do to books what the airplane did to the ocean liner, what oil and gas did to coal furnaces, what the car did to the horse, what freon did to the ice man.

Scoffers counter: Who wants to cuddle up in bed with a computer? And: Unlike a book, if you throw a computer at the cat or your cohabitant, it'll do irreparable damage - to one or both.

Sorry, but both positions are too easy.

Hypermicrominiaturization should cease to astonish you. "State-of-the-art" home computer systems are going obsolete in 24 to 30 months. The 3.5-inch floppy disk, one tecky-conversant friend tells me, will be as quaint as the 78-rpm vinyl record within two years.

Today people around the industry sanguinely predict that in less than five years you will be able to buy a "smart book," very cheap. They insist that it can be as small as a paperback book or as large as you like, that it will be light in weight and sturdy, that its screen will be easy to read, that typeface size and display will be under your command and control, that it will have access to things like encyclopedias and technical backup as well as pictures, in enormous quantity, and all that can be read in the dark and then, in the morning, it will find the place at which you fell asleep.

Some claim this device will quickly expand to contain a huge library of programmed or plugged-in books in sound, too. That it will let you switch back and forth between reading, looking and listening, or all at the same time.

I don't doubt any of that. But the tech-talk camouflages the really important book question.

That question is not about the book's physical shape, form or survival, but rather about its role. What is the relationship of the individual reader to a thoughtfully fashioned and recorded piece of language?

Whether that "piece" is a brief poem or an appellate judicial finding or a Dostoevsky novel affects the issue hardly at all. The crux is awareness.

Like it or not, awareness depends on concentration and remembering. Making it easier to grab bits and pieces of language, written or spoken, inevitably makes superficiality more inviting.

There really is no serious doubt that good judgment and constructive minds are built on the experiences of discipline, concentration, reflection. Writing - and reading - in a manner that is not easily dismissed or trivially amendable is the foundation of Earth's accumulated wisdom, and most individual progress. So far.

So far, most progress has grown on an assumption that culture counts. (Kulture Kounts? Wasn't that a baroque string quartet that played in the 1920s?) It is entirely possible to acquire culture through electronic communication. But the better the electronic communication becomes, the easier it is to settle for dozing in a warm bath of triviality and disguising the experience as substantial.

In the "cybervisionary" concept is the really interesting implication about the future of the book.

No one has put it better than Daniel Max, an editor at Harpers Bazaar, writing in the Atlantic Monthly some months back. He described "cybervisionarism" - the recognition of the electronic communications future - concluding that it "derives directly from the teenage male personalities of the hackers who created the computer industry; cyberspace will be like a better kind of school."

Mr. Max described three articles of faith on which that cyberclassroom is founded: It will be huge, with vast access. It will be messy, confusing to find your way around. And "there will be no teachers: the 'controllers of information' - censors, editors and studio executives - will disappear, and the gates of public discourse will swing open before everyone who can get on-line. Anyone can publish; anyone can read what is published; anyone can comment on what he or she has read."

Cyberbabble! A world of froth, fantasy and forgetfulness. Often delectable. Often, in fact, brilliant, but flitting off in a flash.

That phenomenon will not replace the book. Not books that matter, books of consequence - whether they are in leather covers or on an electronic pinhead. For the serious, the medium will be virtually irrelevant. The book lives.

So you want to know about the future of newspapers? Vital and healthy, of course. And, as long as humankind eats fish and keeps birds in cages . . .

We'll take our circulation where we can get it, thank you very much.

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