Hang Ups

You can see some peculiar sights on a British beach in August, but you don't expect to spot a man, sprawled on a towel, licking a meditative lolly - and ploughing his way through back issues of The Times Ed. A harassed teacher, no doubt, catching up on a backlog of reading - amazed to discover that John Patten has been relieved of his high office or that Harriet Harman chose to send her son to a grammar school.

I mention this, not to make fun of the man - readers, even very slow ones, are not to be mocked - but to draw your attention to a strange phenomenon.

We go to enormous effort and inconvenience to visit the seaside, but the moment we get there, instead of contemplating the deep and dark blue Ocean or searching for infinity in a grain of sand, we fix our eyes resolutely on the printed word. It's as if a day at the seaside without plenty to read would constitute the end of civilisation as we know it.

I discovered this when I was researching an article on CD-Roms. I phoned up a selection of pundits, gurus and clever-dicks to hear what they had to say on the subject. They all made predictable noises about the amazing potential of having text in an electronic form, but then three of them came to exactly the same conclusion. The CD-Rom would never replace the traditional book, they said, "because you can't take it to the beach to read".

I'm beginning to believe that this might be the one plausible argument that can still be advanced in favour of paper and ink. In the not too distant future, old-fashioned books and newspapers, like candy floss and Kiss-me-Quick hats will be an indulgence we'll reserve exclusively for the hols. For the rest of the time, we're going to have to come to terms with the shocking truth that the most sensible way to read text is when it's on a screen.

Small children, whose first experience of the written word is deciphering the credits on their favourite television programmes or enjoying the thrills and spills of a talking book, already know this.

It's only those of us who have grown up in a culture dominated by books who are going to find it hard to accept. Instead of rejoicing in the new technology, we'll concentrate on its shortcomings.

It was probably the same in the old days. There must have been Jeremiahs who pointed out that the introduction of the horseless carriage would lead to a serious shortfall in garden manure. And someone 100 years or so ago surely said, "It certainly illuminates the room, Mr Eddison, but you can't light your fags off it like you can from a candle."

But work being carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology might make it possible to enjoy the advantages of electronic publishing without having to forsake the book. Dr Joseph Jacobson is developing paper which feels like the real thing but in fact works like a screen. This "digital paper" can be bound in a book or folded into a newspaper. You simply choose a text from the Internet or a CD-Rom and download it directly on to the pages where it will remain imprinted until you want to replace it with something new to read. And, yes, you will be able to take it to the beach.

At the time of writing, this remarkable invention is still in the early stages of development.

But if you are the gentleman who stockpiles The Times Ed, you might find, Sir, that it is already on the shelves at your local Dixons.


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