Durable, Endurable - but Not in My Book

It looks like paper, and can be printed on like paper, but it sure ain't the real thing.

The efforts to replace the book with a digital book-like contraption are stuck for reasons technological (it does not really work) and economical (it is still awfully expensive). In this period of grace granted to the book before it becomes a relic of the past in the coming digital future, it seems that technology may actually prolong its life. It may even make it live forever.

One of those technological innovations will be exhibited at the Seventh International Exhibition of Print products, within the framework of FistTech 2001, taking place at the Tel Aviv Fair Grounds, November 26-29. It is - get ready for a shock! - a book printed on a substance that looks like paper, but does not feel or behave like it. This modern miracle will be exhibited by Mera Agencies, and is described in their press kit as "ultra smooth, multilayered, biaxially oriented, synthetic printing paper, extremely durable, dimensionally stable, water repellent, flexible, scuff-resistant, and has unmatched folding endurance."

This synthetic paper is manufactured by the Japanese Yupo corporation, and its name readily brings to mind ideas for a slogan: like "Yippie Yupo" in English, or "Yofi Yupo" in Hebrew. It is made from the highest quality polypropylene resins and inorganic fillers, through a process of extrusion. And do not ask me what that means. I only understand that no rain forest is threatened by it. In the catalog and samples, I saw that it can be smooth, opaque, thin, or thick, and it fits all kinds of printing purposes. There are still some limitations as far as its use with photocopiers and with ink-jet and laser printers due to the heat involved in the process.

My first reaction to that news was that eternity is here to stay. Paper, known to the Chinese in the second century B.C.E., became the standard printing material in Europe in the 15th century, replacing papyrus and parchment, mainly because it was much cheaper. In its definition, there is no mention of its durability; indeed, it is widely accepted that paper is not supposed to be durable, not even when it is acid-free. We use the adjective "paper" when we want to denote the instability of something, like in the song, "It's Only a Paper Moon," or when referring to the press as "the paper tiger."

And then along comes a type of paper on which we can print books for children to read in the bath! I am holding in my hands a children's book in Japanese, printed on Yupo water-resistant paper, which leads me to ask what about books for adults like me, who would also like to read in the bath, with no fear of drowning (the book, not myself)? I tried it, and the book behaves in water like a raincoat, shrugging off drops with a smile. It also has another useful application: it is ideal for maps - no soldier will have to cover his field maps with laminated "coats" before going on a mission. There are maps printed in Israel on Yupo paper at this very moment.

This paper can withstand the wear and tear of people and time. I tried to tear it myself and had to give up. It is possible, of course, that readers who are physically stronger than me (Arnold Schwartzenegger, for instance) will tear it in a jiffy. But I failed.

Still not in demand

What keeps this wonderful invention from becoming the main printing material all over the world - of books - is still its price. Not because the ingredients or the manufacturing process are especially expensive - at least that's what they say at Mera Agencies - but because the demand is still not great enough. That is why the invention is being exhibited to all and sundry at the fair. The more users, the merrier, and possibly, cheaper.

But after we celebrated with paper hats and paper chains, drinking from paper cups and eating from paper plates, swallowing sweets - not made of paper, I hope - there comes a time for some skepticism. I do not doubt for the moment the quality of the product. I only wonder what good it can do in the world of the book, which has traditionally printed on nonsynthetic, acid-free paper.

A writer who yearns to publish a book succumbs to the illusion of eternity. A bound book feels eternal, as compared to hand-written or computer-printed bunches of sheets. But within this illusion of eternity, there is a built-in assumption of something ethereal, some sort of temporality, a lurking feeling that is solid and yet fragile, like a malady that is part and parcel of robust health, or a notion of death which is - or should be - a part of life.

Apart from that, there is one aspect of durability that manufacturers have not considered: Books printed on synthetic paper would not be safe from the perils they were exposed to in Alexandria, Berlin, and in the story and movie "Fahrenheit 451." That is, this paper does not bend or tear (although it can be cut), and it is water-resistant. And it does not burn, but - and I tried it - it melts in fire. And where they melt books, they will eventually melt people.