Take a look at what your eyes are doing right now. It's known as saccadic jumping--the way they skip across the page from left to right before some unseen hand comes in and pushes them to the start of the next line, like the ball on an old typewriter. It's something you've done your whole life. But is it really the most efficient way to read?
Now imagine this: you're sitting at a computer equipped with a steering wheel, gas pedal, brake and stick shift. Words appear on the screen at a speed you determine by applying the pedals. Your eyes don't waste time with saccadic jumps, since there's never more than one word on the screen at a time. The wheel steers you between chapters; the stick shift takes you to the next book. Before you know it, your brain has become some kind of jet-powered Maserati. Reading regular text, you're considered fleet of eye if you hit 400 words a minute; on this device, known as the Speeder Reader, test subjects have been known to manage 2,000 words a minute.
Which doesn't mean we're all going to spend the 21st century treating books like NASCAR racetracks. But as an effective tool for cramming large chunks of information (the technology it is based on is already a big hit with law students), Speeder Reader is proof positive that we also don't have to treat books like slabs of paper that sit on shelves anymore. Printed text, which has remained basically unchanged since Gutenberg first got his fingers inky, is about to bloom into a thousand different forms. The one you use will increasingly depend on what you need to use it for. "The tyranny of the static book is over," says Rich Gold, head of the Research on Experimental Documents (RED) team at Xerox PARC. "The digital revolution can incorporate radical new visions of reading."
Reinventing the book? It's not the kind of thing you'd expect to find preoccupying even the most eccentric inventor's mind. Yet Xerox PARC (it stands for Palo Alto Research Center) is the kind of place that prides itself on overturning assumptions. For one, there are no lone nuts tinkering away in silent labs. Teamwork takes priority here--and as history suggests, there's nothing more powerful than the feedback effect of inventors riffing off one another's work.
The PARC has a pretty good track record when it comes to radical new visions, even if its record of holding onto them has been spotty at best. The mouse, the GUI (graphical user interface, like Windows) and arguably the PC itself were all born in this hothouse of Silicon Valley R. and D.; they ended up making a lot of money for Apple and Microsoft. Xerox has got a lot of prestige but little cash out of the PARC, which is why the beleaguered copier giant intimated in October that it would put its crown jewel up for sale to help stem billion-dollar losses.