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Robert McCrum and the challenges the new technology poses to the book

10 May 2001

Robert McCrum, Literary Editor of The Observer, and the challenges the new technology poses to the book

'The printed book,.... , is a brilliant 'random access device'. It is, as the novelist Nicholson Baker once observed, 'a beautifully browsable invention that needs no electricity and exists in a readable form, no matter what happens. If the end of civilisation comes and we lose electricity, we can hold a CD-Rom up to the light and it has a totemic value, but we have no past.

'The printed book is also a world-class survivor. A renaissance artefact first marketed in this country by an energetic literary hustler named William Caxton, it has kept pace with virtually every technological change you care to think of, from the internal combustion engine to television. If Caxton were to walk into his local branch of Waterstone's today, he would not recognise the fascinating technology of our everyday life, but he would be surprised to find that the thing he called a 'boke' was, in its essentials, pretty much unchanged after 500 years.

'What's more, the printed book stands for a mode of thought - deliberate, ruminative and private - that's a cornerstone of our civilisation. The paper, the ink, the cover and the feel of the thing are precious to us in ways we probably can't quite quantify. A book offers an independent route into a shared past as well as a secret avenue into a personal future. It is, in a word, inimitable.'