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Thane Rosenbaum Headshot

iPad, I Am

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Never before has so much depended on the success of a 10" LED backlit screen. With the economy in shambles and the media a mess, newspapers, magazines and book publishers are suddenly forced to look to Steven Jobs to save their jobs. No longer just Silicon Valley's best-known visionary, Jobs has positioned himself as the Messiah for an entire industry on the road to obsolescence. Writers and publishers, members of a once noble profession, today find themselves as beleaguered characters in the Book of Job--or is it Jobs?

This week Apple unveiled its latest must-have, timesaving and infinitely cool-looking gadget--the iPad. But for many people who live in Manhattan and make a living by putting words on paper, the iPad might one day be remembered as its own Manhattan Project--and not just because it placed a mushroom cloud over its older cousin, Amazon's Kindle.

Everyone from diehard book lovers to newsprint junkies by now realize that the printed word is being unplugged from life support, slowly surrendering to a virtual world that consists of flashing fonts on a computer screen--no ink, no warehouses, no print runs or morning deliveries, and, best of all, no remainders. And Apple, which draws its inspiration if not its logo from the Tree of Knowledge, has become a corporation with both a soaring stock price and an implicit mission statement to save humankind from functional illiteracy.

This is what newsboys would be barking from street corners if newspapers still mattered, if the Holy Trinity of the Internet, cable TV and Stephen Colbert wasn't the primary way news gets delivered nowadays: "Extra, extra, read all about it . . ."

Newspapers are closing bureaus and offering buyouts due to declining subscriptions and blank advertising pages. Weekend editions are being scrapped and cities are finding themselves without either local coverage or an independent journalistic voice. Bloggers are now the nation's roving reporters. The New York Times is tinkering with how to charge for its online service. The Wall Street Journal has been doing it for years. The entire business model of newspapers, magazines, and books is being questioned, as if they should have ever been subject to the same bottom-line business criteria as toothpaste and radial tires.

Suddenly the written word is not worth the paper it is written on, as if the paper itself is too expensive to waste on mere words. Even fish and chips are running for a different cover. Everyone is moving online, leaving a trail of typesetter tears, the curious circuitry of the Internet and its gleaming Manifest Destiny.

Newsprint, broadsheets and tabloids have as much cultural relevance as typewriters and rabbit ear antennas. And the once indispensable book--dusty and dense, dog-eared and sun-drenched--will soon become an artifact of a bygone age, revered but ultimately irrelevant. This is all quite familiar, not unlike how human interactions have become depersonalized, evident only through invisible connections on social networks where no one actually meets eye-to-eye. The life of the mind will, so too, come to depend entirely on dazzling screens, ergonomic keyboards, and blistering modems.

Sure, by now we have all learned how to text and Tweet, but most of what is being written reads as if it has been composed by and for twits. A number of writers, as diverse as Sherman Alexie, Alan Kaufman, Jaron Lanier and Mark Helprin, have all rebelled to some degree against the world's capitulation to the electronic book. Of course, they have all been shouted down--but voicelessly, of course, online, treated with the same indignity as the makers of Spam.

This is the way of the world, the new lay of the land. Why shouldn't all books--an entire library, in fact--be encased on a single tablet, instantly downloadable, easily searchable, even discardable? Imagine: Every newspaper and magazine available at the press of a button.

Publishers of every kind are beginning to see the light--the one that radiates from handheld devices and sounds like the cash register otherwise known as iTunes. Many of those who came to their profession because of a love affair with reading and an addiction to the supple beauty of a book are now striking deals with Steven Jobs, trying to snatch a small slice of the Apple pie.

The new world beckons. Let the reading begin--again.