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This is not a book

Nobody living in this country today picks up a ringing phone and (a) says "Hello?", (b) hears a caller's voice, and (c) involuntarily exclaims, "Wow, I'm talking to somebody miles away, just like we were in the same room!" A century from now, the immediacy of hyperlinks - if they still exist at all - will also be taken completely for granted. If they still exist, everyone who utilizes them will have grown up taking computers for granted as well. Even then, though, it may still be the case that nobody reads books on line. 

Don't worry; I'm not about to wallow in sentimental raptures about the beautiful palpability of bound volumes, of crisp black type on crisp white paper. Books will go on being printed as long as they're deemed convenient by most readers, and not much longer. Consider the quill pen - there's palpability for you! Consider the typewriter! According to an article in The Times, biographer Robert Caro owns fourteen typewriters, all the same Smith Corona model, and pillages thirteen of them for parts to keep the one he uses in working order. 

It's one thing to say that the difference between books and computers - a difference that's obvious, even if it's not readily described - poses certain obstacles to the reading of complicated texts on line, and quite another to say that books are just nicer than computers and therefore 'better.' The difference deserves examination, not dismissal. 

The difference between reading a printed page while cradling a book in one's hands and reading  a computer screen while hovering over its keyboard is only the most straightforward part of a larger difference between reading books and computers, and because there doesn't seem to be anything about computers that can't be gotten used to, I'd like to set their novelty aside. Books don't hum, and we can read them without the distraction of worrying about tying up phone lines or running up phone bills. Computer screens are cluttered with elements of the graphical user interface (everything aside from the text that you want to read) that it may be inconvenient to disable. If scrolling down a screen is unlike turning a page, that's probably only a matter of habit. With a little tweaking and an external keyboard, you might conceivably reorient the screen's page layout, rotate your notebook 90 degrees, and read a succession of right- or left-hand pages. Computer screens and printed pages aren't apples and oranges. 

Books, however, are more than collections of printed pages. They're packages, too. In order to read a book, you have to open it, and this usually means that you have to pick it up. You may, if you like, examine its labeling before choosing to open it. If you have already read part of the book, some sense of what you've read will envelope the physical book in an aura, so that you will recognize the place where you left off when you find it. Between the decision to read a book that's lying on a table and the actual reading of that book lies a host of tiny but indispensable mental and physical acts, all of which conduce to establish a context in your mind for what you're about to read. If you doubt me, just ask somebody in AI.

It's not the computer that makes online reading as different from book reading as it is, but the hyperlink. To conceive of the very different operation of hyperlinks, imagine that you're standing in the middle of a library and thinking about reading Plato's 'Republic.' Imagine that, without your doing anything more than uttering a command, the text appears on  a screen before your eyes. If this sounds cool, that's only because you're not actually struggling with a screen, trying to figure out what kind of text Plato's 'Republic' contains, without the benefit of a spine, a table of contents perhaps, and the sheer time that it takes to find a book and open it up. What seems like a real-world inconvenience is actually the establishment of a context. In much the same way, the nine months required for the gestation of a human infant establish a context that transforms two young kids into roughly competent parents. 

When you click on the link that appears on my page devoted to the Merode Altarpiece, and take a look at the artwork in question, where are you, exactly? You're at the Metropolitan Museum's Web site, that's where. With the tap of a finger, you've exchanged one virtual world for another. To do that with books probably involves a bit of heavy lifting, and maybe you wouldn't bother, if you were reading a printed page about the panel, to get up and look for your copy of Janson's 'History of Art.' You might not be sure that Janson includes a reproduction of the work. But the interruption is no trouble at all, and in fact clicking on links will always be more tempting than working out the meaning of writing worth reading. Now say that you're back at my page - to which, you'll note, I didn't insert a link at the beginning of this paragraph, lest it distract you. Can you remember where in the site you are? Does it matter? If you're reading a book, your grip tells you where you are in the text even if the pages are unnumbered. If you're still near the beginning, you'll probably be willing to make a greater effort at understanding what you're reading than you would be if your hands told you that the end was near, for we expect the last pages of a book to wrap things up, not to pose new difficulties. So far as I know, nobody has taught the computer how to simulate that grip. 

Whether readers ever take to ingesting essays and novels via computer screens depends in part on how well Web publishers develop conventions that establish context, that tell you what you're going to be reading before you read it, so that when you begin to read it, you know right where you are. (February 2001)

(My page on the Merode Altarpiece is right here.) 

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