Open Eye: The Book Is Dead: Long Live The Book OU Programmes At The Weekend

It's time to plug in the paperback and switch of your pencil while you watch TV
Click to follow
In July, John Paul Getty paid nearly pounds 5m at Christie's for a first edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This was a world auction record for any printed book. It is unlikely he will read this volume on the bus, on the beach or in the bath.

Books can become difficult to read. In an era when publishers are turning over a digital leaf, the British Library exhibit Talking Pages shows how innovative computer technology and a set of interactive screens allows visitors to flip through the pages of global masterworks. Touch a screen and a ninth-century Buddhist scroll unravels its full length, zoom in and out of Leonardo's Notebook, and linger over an illuminated Renaissance gospel.

Yet Clive Izard, head of audio-visual Services at the British Library, still speaks up on behalf of humble print on paper. "Technology can liberate the precious book from where it is housed and provide access for many," he argues.

"But people will always want to touch books and turn their pages. We can't replace the tactile quality of the printed page. Paper and new technology will live in perfect harmony."

Animator Philip Pepper of Cambridge Animation Systems celebrates the virtues of the pencil: "Pencils are a great medium. They never crash, you don't have to plug them in, they're simple and they're cheap."

In this week's open.saturday programme The Book is Dead Howard Stableford asks whether computer technology is radically altering the way text and information is received, read, stored and used. Can the tactile pleasures of reading a beautifully bound hardback ever be replaced by reading a screen?

Will Generation X be far more comfortable with a palm-held electronic information device than a dog-eared paperback? Will there soon be a generation of cyberbooks and wired writers?

The Book is Dead explores the impact of Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Echoing contemporary comment on the power of the Internet, the programme shows that printing using moveable type was a revolutionary force in the dissemination of knowledge. With no further need for reed, stylus or pen, it ended the medieval world's rich and exclusive manuscript tradition.

In the 16th century Christopher Plantin's printing business in Antwerp was the largest in Europe with 16 presses at work (modelled, incidentally, on medieval wine and olive oil presses). The whole industrial printing process of type cast in a mould using molten lead, skilled compositors and wooden galleys can be found in Plantin's printshop. This is a familiar process running right through to the Fleet Street of the late 1970s.

Plantin published mainly religious books, maps and atlases as well as ephemera such as the funeral service for the Emperor Charles V. With the cost of book production remaining high in the subsequent centuries, it was only with the increase in literacy in the latter nineteenth century that book production began to increase very substantially.

Innovative publishing techniques such as Dickens's Pickwick Papers appearing in 20 monthly parts combined with the invention of power-driven printing and then machine typesetting in the 19th century to establish the reading habit in the literate middle classes.

The promotional dustwrapper, lending libraries, and the Penguin revolution of the 1930s all helped to make books objects of mass consumption.

But will there be national weeping for a digital Little Nell in 2010 or will the reading public be fragmented into tiny 'niche markets' with digitally delivered fact and fiction?

Clearly, notebook computers, CD-Roms, video-games, the web and the convergence of new technologies are changing the way we communicate knowledge. Desktop publishing has turned the economics of getting into print on its head and now the Web has removed many other barriers to publishing so that authors can publish exclusively on the Web at very low cost.

The Book is Dead asks whether a new generation of children is developing a new kind of literacy. A quick comparison between the pace of 1950s Andy Pandy and 1990s MTV suggests that the modern child is taking in information in much faster and more complex ways. The screen is now a frantically busy place.

A variety of new technologies now compete for a child's attention. Victorian children struggled to achieve basic literacy in the written word (and not to write with their left hands). The 1990s child moves between the written word, kids 'webzines', Nintendo games and the video-games arcade. Are we in the dying days of the book? Do we yet understand how new technology may be changing the way children read, write and tell stories compared to Victorian child? The jury may still be out.

If literacy is still the key to the adult world, then computer literacy may be essential to overcome social exclusion and improve employment prospects. This open.saturday programme takes the viewer to California to Plugged In, a community organisation which aims to ensure that children in deprived areas get access to computers.

Social deprivation could be the cul de sac on the Information Super Highway. Plugged In presents a vision of hope where children are becoming skilled producers of screen-based stories and games, gaining the new literacy and sensing new possibilities for themselves in the wired world.

So plug in the paperback and switch off your pencil while you watch The Book is Dead. And consider whether the John Paul Getty of the future will be investing 5m ecus in a disk holding the first edition of a classic 'webzine' in the Christie's of 2020!

open.saturday programmes are shown on Saturdays at 9am on BBC2