FOR more than a century, members of the Modern Language Association have come together once a year to talk about literature - the stuff bound up (mostly) in books. This time the book itself became a focal point of the group's annual meeting, held here recently.
``The future of the print record is jeopardized,'' says J. Hillis Miller, former president of the association, known as the MLA.
What scholars are realizing is something that librarians started to investigate 40 years ago. Millions of volumes are turning to dust on US library shelves. The composition of book paper and certain chemical treatments have discolored pages and, because of air pollutants, caused them to get brittle and crumble.
Book preservation has become such a hot topic, adds association Executive Director Phyllis Franklin that ``99 percent of MLA members think that this is the most important question that has come down the pike.'' The association held special sessions on saving books and released a draft statement on the subject, urging scholars to ``recognize that the future of humanistic study depends on the preservation of original materials.''
The problem is mostly confined to books published after the 1850s, when the industry moved from cotton-rag and linen-rag paper to paper produced from wood pulp. Publishers in recent years have moved to acid-free paper, which alleviates the problem. But more than a century of books remain at risk. According to Mr. Miller, 100 million such books are moldering away in the US; about 10 million of them are unique and irreplaceable.
There are solutions, but each has its drawbacks. A division of Chicago-based FMC Corporation has developed a chemical treatment to take the acid out of old books. Unfortunately, it could cost libraries an estimated $10 to $15 a book at a time when libraries are already cutting back their budgets.
Some companies are copying old books onto microfilm or into various kinds of computer formats. For the past five years, the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded programs that have put more than 550,000 volumes on microfilm. But copied books don't live up to the original, scholars argued at the MLA meeting.
``I just don't believe that a picture of this is the same as feeling it,'' says University of Pennsylvania Prof. Gregg Camfield, holding up an 1873 publisher's prospectus. ``I don't think we can afford to lose our past.'' For one thing, copies lack some of the information of the original. If an author changed his manuscript using one color pen, then later made further changes with another color, the corrections all look the same on a photocopied page.
Miriam Fuchs of the University of Hawaii at Manoa was puzzled why a Hawaiian queen filled only part of her diary pages until she went back to the originals. The copies she had studied were regular-sized paper; the original diaries were quite a bit smaller, allowing the queen to hide them in the folds of her Victorian gown.
Anthony Pugh of the University of New Brunswick went back to the original notebooks of French author Marcel Proust and found a mistake that other scholars, reading the microfilmed copies, had missed. Material thought lost turned up on the facing page, which Proust rarely used.
While many scholars fretted about the threatened past of the book, others worried about its future. Can it survive the onslaught of electronic technology? ``The messianic leaders of the information-technology takeover are the same ones who told us the book was dead,'' says Paul Mosher, library director at the University of Pennsylvania.
In fact, the making of books is far from dead, he points out. Retail sales of books in the US reached $23.7 billion last year, up 4.6 percent from 1993, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a New York-based research organization.
Nevertheless, technology continues to invade even the ranks of scholarly book-lovers. While some MLA sessions focused on the dangers of losing books, others presented new methods of using computers to study literature. One scholar had counted the most common words in 17 dramas to examine the changing use of the English language from 1587 to 1632.
``The technology is moving very rapidly into our area,'' acknowledges Paul Fortier, a professor of French at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. And it does offer students wider, though admittedly second-hand, access to rare books, he adds.
Unfortunately, it's not at all clear that the new technologies will be any more durable than the book. Some of the archival microfilm is supposed to last 200 to 500 years, but no one knows whether it really will or not. Computer formats change so rapidly that early electronic tests can't be read by today's machines.
Computers are already used to make books with book-less forms, although ``most of the stuff ... is pretty bad,'' says Paul Jones, who heads an Internet project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Will this bring the 500-year Book Age to an end? Not in the foreseeable future, scholars agree. But Mr. Jones takes the long view. No one reads papyrus or scrolls anymore, he points out.