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Books in Cyberspace

The guest column below appeared in U.S. News & World Report on May 4, 1998. Thanks to the magazine for the e-copy from its archive and the right to reproduce it here. Check out USN's education section.

By David H. Rothman

Computers just don't cut it for beach or bathroom reading. But imagine a computer shaped like a real book, complete with pages one can flip, each U.S. News & World Reportembedded with programmable "type" that could reproduce anything from a trigonometry text to The Great Gatsby. Techies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently trotted out a primitive prototype of a gadget that in the next five years may do exactly that.

It's about time. notwithstanding, the Internet is already siphoning off the money and time of some people who might otherwise buy books. But what if the MIT gizmo and the Net could help raise literary and educational standards and aid publishers and writers along the way? A national library online could offer free and enticing books from private publishers and fairly reward copyright holders. Right now, public libraries can scrounge up a measly $3 per capita for books. Writers earn perhaps $5 billion to $6 billion annually from U.S. book royalties--less than a third the amount by which Bill Gates grew richer in the 12-month period ending last summer.

Avoiding Big Brother

This is not to say Washington should ape the old Soviet cultural bureaucracy and bestow grants on political favorites. Instead, a tax-supported national library fund could pay writers or publishers by their titles' popularity. Those rejected could pay the fund to have their books included--gambling that they would make the money back. What's more, librarians across the country could help run this virtual library to avoid Big Brotherish domination by the feds. Funding could be private as well as public. People like Bill Gates, who has committed only about half a percent of his $50 billion fortune to libraries, might take the opportunity to become full-fledged Carnegies.

TeleRead, as the library might be called, could build on existing efforts and enrich the Internet with material besides books--educational software, for example. But please don't neglect books, the best way to encourage sustained thought. And TeleRead books ought not to be limited to children; we should also urge on their No. 1 role models--parents.

Beyond supplying a true national library online, TeleRead could, through guidelines or targeted government grants, encourage schools and libraries to buy book-friendly computers. These small machines could be tablet-style and sharp-screened, and electronic pens could let you pick out chapters, browse the Web, or write E-mail. Flippable pages of the MIT variety would just add to the allure of TeleReaders. And so would the right talk from Al Gore or Newt Gingrich. What's more, the school market could whet Silicon Valley's interest and seed the retail market; parents eventually could buy TeleReaders at Kmart for under $75.

With electronic pens and good handwriting recognition, TeleReaders would also excel at E-forms and allow for more-efficient dealings with the IRS or the corporate world. A bank can save as much as 90 percent on a transaction made on the Net instead of through a local branch. In our $7 trillion economy, the popularization of E-forms could indirectly shift billions of dollars from paperwork to books.

Simply put, books and bytes needn't war with each other. With marvels like the MIT gizmo on the way, we can enjoy real books in cyberspace.