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DOOMSDAY BOOK

The end of the book is a subject that has been around ever since the internet became popular. The issue is inextricably linked with the question: what is a book? To decide if a particular entity is coming to an end, it is critical to know what constitutes the entity. It is not easy to define a book even though it is still one of the more common visible objects. Was the book invented with the first stone/wooden tablets or from the more ancient papyrus scrolls or from the invention of printing in the middle of the 15th century? However defined, the common element is the fact that books are objects from which people read. If this is accepted then the internet cannot really be seen as a threat to it, but only as its extension. The reason for saying this is best expressed in the words of Umberto Eco: “The Internet has returned us to the alphabet.’’ The computer and its later modifications like the Kindle or the iPad force a person to read. In order to read, the essential requirement is a medium that conveys words to the mind: the scroll, the codex, the book, the computer, the e-book and as yet unforeseen future variants of the medium that enables humans to read.

Most people, in spite of the rise and popularity of the internet, identify the book as a collection of pages of a certain uniform size that are bound together within covers. This is the modern form of the book, which is not more than a few hundred years old. But human beings have been reading from long before that. At a certain point in time, human beings invented the written word. The words were then put down on different media: clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, palm leaves, parchment and then paper. Most of the ancient books were in the form of scrolls — the Torah scrolls that the Jews use even today in their services. In medieval times the codex became popular and this facilitated the turning of pages as in modern books. The invention and the spread of printing made books mobile. They became objects that could be easily carried around and read anywhere rather than only in libraries. What this engendered was an intimacy between the book and the reader. A book also became a thing to be possessed.

The internet and the e-book have revived scrolling — a form of reading with which the ancients were familiar. The very new has borrowed from the very old. The form of the book is undergoing a change. But the principal aim of the book — to make people read — endures. The perceived threat to the book is to the form or the medium and not to its content and purpose. Readers of the world can rejoice that the media through which words can be read are expanding. The book enthusiast can read the Jewish scrolls, the Brahmin punthis, the Christian codices and the secular books. He can also read all of these on the screen. Let reading thrive.

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