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Read a Real Page Turner

Consider the lowly textbook.

Fifty years after TV signals tripped across antennas, 20 years after the coaxial cable snaked like kudzu down telephone wires, the English language textbook is supposed to go the way of the Dodo.

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And if the printed page isn't extinct yet, futurists predict the onslaught of digital TV coming to computer monitors via the Internet will finish it off.

What chance does bound paper, strong enough to prop up the family car, have against the "emerging technologies" of the information age?

The Dodo may not be coming back, but the same can't be said for textbooks. Their future is as secure as the need to learn.

Publishers of instructional materials ("new speak" for textbooks) rang up the largest gains in the $21 billion US book business last year. Sales to elementary schools increased 13 percent, college texts 7.4 percent.

British media conglomerate Pearson PLC just bought the textbook arm of Simon & Schuster for $3.6 billion. Education is the "great growth industry of our time," says a Pearson executive.

The company predicts 10 percent annual growth worldwide in sales of English language textbooks well into the next century.

Textbooks are with us from childhood. Close encounters begin in the elementary grades. So many, so heavy.

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I remember hefting them as I left for school in the morning with my mother saying, "Do you have all your books and homework?"; and when I returned home in the afternoon, "Do you have all your books to do your homework?"

Like gravity, they existed.

In high school, then college, textbooks evolved into nocturnal creatures. They just worked better when the sun went down. Falling asleep pulling all-nighters usually meant nodding off with one, then waking up with it.

The bed in my freshman dorm was no different from most. Three classics piled on it: the Norton Anthology of Literature - matters of the heart printed on tissue-thin paper; "Economics," by Paul Samuelson, for Econ 101 and the world of commerce; "Understanding Poetry," by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, still my favorite.

My wife's college Shakespeare text has marginal notes better than a diary.

Substitute "textbook" for "friend" in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 30" and you glimpse the profound, lasting relationship lovers of ideas have with a book studied well:

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past,/ I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought/ And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste..../ But if the while I think on thee, dear friend/ All losses are restored, and sorrows end."

Maybe you didn't save your college textbooks. If so, take a close look at the textbooks your child or grandchild brings home. See them as cornerstones. Imagine what impressions they will leave 20 to 30 years hence.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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