Why Books Aren't Extinct

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the world's largest book fair.

That, in case you've never been lost among its thousands of publishers' booths, is the Frankfurt Book Fair. It's a huge carnival of literature housed in a vast fairground acreage near the skyscrapers that now tower over Goethe's hometown. Nearby, fittingly enough, lies Mainz, home city of Johannes Gutenberg, whose movable- type printing made books for the masses possible.

To go to the Frankfurt fair today is to marvel at the vigor of books, which refuse to die at the hand of the electronic age. Publishers and agents from around the world gather in Frankfurt each year - not so much to sell books as to buy and sell rights to publish each other's prized manuscripts and authors. And authors' agents prowl, hoping to sell direct.

We tend to look at history, wrongly, as a succession of eras with beginnings and endings like, well, books. In the case of communication, that translates into eras (chapters) labeled memory, speech, writing, print, film, radio, TV, and now the www. Socrates started us thinking that each new era blotted out its predecessor when he warned that the invention of writing would make memory (unwritten sagas, epics, oral history) obsolete.

Nonsense - as the persistence of books, newspapers, magazines, and other ink-embossed cellulose products throughout all the electronic communications eras reminds us.

What is the biggest hit (hits-collector) on the Web? Amazon.com (plus barnesandnoble.com, etc.). The old and new media complement each other, just as writing and memory did in worrywart Socrates's day.

The Frankfurt fair dramatically illustrates this symbiosis. Since 1994 it has provided a "virtual fair" on computer via a CD-ROM that lists tens of thousands of book rights available. So publishers around the world can deal in one another's bestsellers and scholarly works online. But, despite the virtual fair, some 320,000 people will show up in Frankfurt this week.

Moral: You can't replace human contact any more than you can replace a good book that goes with you to the beach, subway, or bed. A page-turner needs pages.

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