Booksellers Jump on Electronic Bandwagon

MY three-year-old nephew can't read yet, but as I discovered in a recent visit to his home, he can perch himself on the edge of a chair and with dexterity manipulate a computer mouse to create action in his talking children's computer program.

If the electronics books industry has its way, such interactions will be the wave of the '90s for both adults and children - or so it seemed during a session at the recent American Booksellers Association (ABA) meeting in Los Angeles over the Memorial Day weekend. Among the broad array of topics considered at round-table discussions, author breakfasts, and meetings was "The Electronic Book and Opticals Media: The Future is Now."

Working hand-in-hand with the publishing industry, numerous companies are jumping onto the electronic-book bandwagon. Philips Interactive Media of America, for example, has turned 50 book titles into compact discs. Choices include Bible stories such as Noah's ark, a Richard Scarry children's book, and the Rand McNally Atlas of the United States. A player called "Smart Television" allows the discs to be viewed on a television screen.

While the Philips electronic book of the complete works of Shakespeare is mostly text, the visuals on other discs are impressive. For example, a dinosaur encyclopedia set to dramatic music tells viewers all about the species, and with a keystroke one can zero in on a revolving, three-dimensional drawing of a tyrannosaur.

Used with their computer, Apple Computer's electronic books have a more traditional children's book feeling. Although the books are narrated, the text is clearly placed on the page for children to follow along. They can also manipulate the drawings - a bird can fly out of a tree; Grandma's answering machine can be heard from a nearby house. And with a touch of the keys, Spanish can replace English.

Despite these remarkable innovations, inevitably one must ask if electronic books will make text and reading words increasingly secondary. If the narrator entertains and does the work, will readers - especially children - really read along? And will the fledgling reader learn as quickly with so many distractions and voice aids?

And, what about the practical fact that it's much easier to take a book than a computer to the beach for a day of reading? Sony Corporation of America has addressed that question with its battery-powered, hand-held, 1-pound, 9-ounce disc player with screen and speaker. The company has produced 35 titles on disc - including Compton's Encyclopedia - and hopes to have the unit and discs available in bookstores this year. Apple Computer and Philips say they are also coming out with similar products next year .

If the publishing industry really is moving from dusty tomes to electronic books, some major questions still remain. What about copyright laws and pirating? Would a proliferation of electronic books adversely affect paperback book sales? And - more important - what will be the long-range effect on an already-struggling publishing industry?

It's hard to believe that someday people will trade in their multipage bound volumes for slick electronic pancakes. And as one bookseller pointed out, electronic books can't replace the warmth and bonding experienced between parent and child as they turn the pages of a favorite storybook.

Yet despite all these questions, it's tough to shake the memory of my captivated nephew exuding "ohs" as he delighted in playing with the computer screen.

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