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Page 2 of 4 -- What a change a decade has brought. One of the surprise critical hits of 2003 was "So Many Books" by the Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid. As devoted a book lover as Birkerts, Zaid celebrates rather than mourns. Fifty years after the introduction of television, he writes, the number of titles published worldwide each year has increased fourfold from 250,000 to 1 million -- from 100 books for every million humans to 167. A book is published somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

Where Birkerts and other pessimists detected a shift from the book, Zaid sees the true problem in the hopeless disproportion between the flood of books and the time and physical space of readers already overwhelmed by the larger information deluge. The speed of publication, Zaid writes, makes us "exponentially more ignorant. If a person reads a book a day, he would be neglecting to read 4,000 others, published the same day."

. . .

What accounts for the shift in mood between these two landmark books about reading? As it turns out, both the optimistic technological prophets and the pessimistic critics of the 1990s overlooked a series of underlying paradoxes about books.

First, books have multiplied partly because they have become less and less important as information storage technologies. As our dependence on them has shrunk, their number and variety has increased, and their status has been if anything enhanced by the attention that the Web has showered on them through online bookselling and discussion groups.

As late as the early 19th century, books were used for many activities for which they were not especially efficient. Major libraries printed their catalogs, and others used handwritten bound volumes. Accounting was literally book-keeping. Bankers had little gilt-edged and leather-bound lists of bond values at different interest rates, and credit reports were extracted from handwritten, bound manuscripts.

But over time, information was cut thinner for easier access and more frequent revision to handle a new flood of products and transactions. Card catalogs replaced printed library catalogs, and were extended as the first true databases. Slide rules reduced reliance on tables. Loose-leaf accounting systems and bookkeeping machines changed the form of business records.

"How Much Information 2003," a recent report of the School of Information Management and Systems of the University of California, Berkeley, shows just how unimportant books and other paper documents have become for information storage. New information has been growing at 30 percent a year, consistent with the techno-evangelists' predictions. In 2002, 5 exabytes -- 500,000 times the capacity of the Library of Congress -- of new information was produced worldwide. Ninety-two percent of it was on hard drives and other magnetic media. Only 0.01 percent of information in all media is stored on paper, and books by one estimate account for less than 2.5 percent of all paper.   Continued...

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