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Ajit Balkrishnan: The coming end of books?


Ajit Balkrishnan  |  New Delhi 

The morning sky was overcast. A steady rain clattered on the tiled roof of the building that sheltered me as I waited for the library van to arrive from the state capital, Trivandrum. I was there early to get the first choice of books before the other kids got to them. The library van came around once a month and brought with it books that were available neither at our local library nor at our town's only book shop, Higginbotham's, at the railway station.
One season, the van favoured Bertrand Russell, so I eagerly read Russell all season long. Then they brought around The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the very next week my brother and I were paddling around in the pond near our home in imitation of Tom and Huck. I wonder whether the bibliophilic clerks toiling away in their dusty cubby hole in the Government Secretariat Building in the state capital administering this mobile library scheme were aware of the revolution that they were sparking off in young minds as their library vans worked their way around the state.
Books are so ubiquitous today that it is hard to believe that human beings made do without them till quite recently and equally hard to believe that we may be already witnessing their slow phase-out.
It was only in 1440 that Johann Guttenberg in Germany thought up the modern printing press: a system of moveable lead-alloy, oil-based ink and a method of pressing these inked types onto paper. These types could then be dismantled and reassembled to print the next book.
So obvious were the advantages of Guttenberg's innovation that one would have imagined that it spread like wildfire. On the contrary, and in a move that parallels the current attempt of print-based publishers to drag their feet about making books and journals freely available on the Internet, there was much resistance from the "mainstream publishers" of that day, the hand calligraphers. The scribes' guild of Paris, from example, lobbied and managed to delay the introduction of the printing press into France by more than twenty years, in the 15th century.
In India, the adoption of printing took even longer. Indian scholars looked with disdain at the printed book as a tool of imparting learning. Truly learned men, they believed, were supposed to recite thousands of slokas from memory. Anyone who had to look up a book to remember things had to be an impostor.
I suspect that some of this scholarly antipathy to printing may have had another basis as well""the apprehension that the tightly controlled, caste-based system of sharing knowledge of the scriptures, of mathematics, and medicine would be eroded if such knowledge was open to all through cheap, universally available printed books.
Printing in India had to wait till the Portuguese set up the first printing press in Goa in the late 15th century, many decades after Guttenberg, with scant attention being paid to this historic event by the Mughals, who began ruling some decades later. Another 100 years had to elapse before Indians set up their own printing presses.
The Guttenberg revolution's true significance was that it made possible the transmission of knowledge at far cheaper costs and to larger numbers of readers than had been possible by calligraphy.
The move to digitise libraries is an attempt to take this democratisation one step further.
And just like the scribes of Paris, the mainstream publishing industry is making every effort to postpone this. One such effort is extending the period for which a copyright is valid, from the original 14 years from the date of first release to 50 years past the author's life. This makes it hard to get any recent book into digital libraries. Nonetheless, through projects like Project Guttenberg, already 20,000 titles are available for free reading on the Internet and many private and publicly funded efforts are under way to increase this number.
The current effort to digitise books and make them available online may just be a transition to more revolutionary changes in publishing that may bring to an end the book as we know it today. Books are 200-300 pages only because that is the length at which the current book publishing economic system earns its best returns. Express the same idea in say, 100 pages, and the book will look too slim for a reader to willingly pay the $20-30 hardcover price needed in Western markets to make a book economic for the publisher.
Once the digital wave really takes off, authors will not have the pressure to pad their books up to the market-mandated 200-300 pages. They will have the liberty to make a book as short or as long as it needs to be.
And the printed book will join the papyrus, the birch bark and the palm leaf as markers of the past elite control of knowledge.
At least we take comfort in the feeling that future teenagers would not need to huddle in the rain awaiting a library van.
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First Published: Fri, April 13 2007. 00:00 IST