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Creating 'the Last Book' to Hold All the Others

>From today's NY Times and of interest to many of us, no doubt.


<excerpt><excerpt>April 8, 1998

Creating 'the Last Book' to Hold All the Others


 CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In the <<#1>Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, they are working on a project they call
"<<#1>the last book."

This may sound ominous to book lovers. After all, the Media Lab devotes
itself mainly to computers. Looking at a computer means reading an
electronic screen, which is decidedly not the way most people want to
read a book, particularly the last one.

 Reading text on a computer screen is confining and tiresome. You can't
see where you are or how far you have to go. You can't leaf through the
pages to compare parts of the text or to see what your eye finds at
random. You can't comfortably carry a computer screen around with you, to
bed, to the beach or to the bathroom.

 You can't collect computer screens, or bind them beautifully in vellum,
or display them on shelves in the spirit that the English novelist
Anthony Powell evoked when he titled one of his volumes "Books Do Furnish
a Room."

 But hold everything! The news is far from grim. The book of the future
described to me on a visit to the Media Lab is really a book, just like
"Goodnight Moon," "Paradise Lost" or the Gutenberg Bible. It has a
binding that could be made of leather if you wanted, and hundreds of
pages you can turn one at a time or riffle through. You'll be able to
carry it around with you, to bed, to the beach or to the bathroom.

 The key to this book is something called electronic ink, or e-ink, which
can be applied to the page from within instead of by a press. Being
developed by Joseph Jacobson, an assistant professor at MIT, with the
backing of Things That Think and News in the Future, two business
consortia of some 75 companies, this e-ink consists of microscopic
spheres, each about 40 microns in diameter, or about half the thickness
of a piece of paper. Each sphere is half black and half white. These
spheres can be applied by the millions to paper and then flipped over
electronically to either their black sides or their white sides to
produce what looks like a traditional printed page.

 As envisioned at the Media Lab, the book pages will each have fine wires
carrying electricity to flip the dots in the direction of a computer
concealed in the book binding. The user will scroll through a list of
book titles displayed on the book's spine. If the user selects "Ulysses,"
the computer will make the text appear on the book's pages by flipping
the appropriate spheres to their black or white sides.

Credit: Archie Tse / The New York Times

As the capacity of the book's memory grows, whole libraries may be
installed. Jacobson foresees being able to store the entire U.S. Library
of Congress, whose holdings number more than 17 million volumes. A user
might also be able to assemble a book from multiple sources to fit
special needs. Illustrations might be animated. E-ink could also make it
possible to receive broadcasts that typeset themselves to create instant

 Yet the book would still have the familiar advantages of a book,
Jacobson says. You could unplug its power and carry it anywhere. The
display would be designed to sense the presence of a stylus, or pen, so
that you could underline or write notes on it. You might even be able to
dogear the book.

 Jacobson greatly admires the traditional book. "After all," he added,
"if books had been invented after the computer, they would have been
considered a big breakthrough. Books have several hundred simultaneous
paper-thin, flexible displays. They boot instantly. They run on very low
power at a very low cost."

Every book ever published in a single volume? The mind boggles and a
dozen questions form. Will this really happen? How soon could the last
book be available? "A prototype with just a few pages could be put
together in two to three years, with one of 400 pages taking a year or
two longer," Jacobson said.

 (It should be pointed out that two years ago, in a description of his
project published by the Media Lab, Jacobson stated that a prototype
would be available in "about two years," meaning 1998. What I actually
saw at the Media Lab did not approach even one page.)

"We have already demonstrated the fundamental new parts needed to make
it," Jacobson continued. "Since there are many different projects that
can be enabled by this underpinning technology, exactly when it will be
combined to form a book is not yet clear. But an important point is that
these are technologies that are easily manufactured and not phenomenally

How much will it cost then? Jacobson says the volume will probably retail
for $2 to $4 per reusable page, or $500 to $1,000 for a book that is
every book, although he is working on ways to reduce costs even further.
"It would be nice to have a cost so low that you could lose the book
without worrying about it too much," he added. "I believe that will be

 What about the cost of the contents? Books in the public domain could be
downloaded for nothing, Jacobson says. For new works and books still in
copyright, a system of royalties could be set up in which texts would be
encrypted and readers would buy the access code by Internet, phone or
wireless transaction.

 Some questions remain unanswered. What are the implications for the
publishing industry? Already any writer can post a book on the Internet.
But books will still need to be edited and promoted. What about
libraries? Bookstores? Remainders? Used books? First editions? Rare
books? Copies inscribed by the author? Autographing parties? What, in
heaven's name, is to become of the dearly beloved book borrower?

 Will books no longer furnish a room? It looks as if they won't, unless,
like me, you will still insist on having certain titles on the shelf, to
remind you of their existence and your promise to yourself to read them
some day.

 The likes of us will have to keep on collecting old-fashioned books. Or
maybe resort to displaying those Potemkin villages of books on our
shelves, rows and rows of our favorite titles in colors that match the
furniture and the pets.

 Just one of them will be real and removable from the shelf. It will
contain not hollowed-out pages with a gun or a whisky flask or cash or
diamonds, but a treasure far greater: at the touch of a button, any book
ever written. And when it is removed, family members will be free to ask
a question that might once have reflected a certain benightedness: "Hey!"
they'll be able to cry out. "Who's using the book?"


<center><bold>Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


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