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From the New York Times, an article by Lev Grossman, who writes that something “very important and very weird” is happening to the book right now.
It’s shedding its papery corpus and transmigrating into a bodiless digital form, right before our eyes. we’re witnessing the bibliographical equivalent of the rapture. If anything, we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all.
However a change of this magnitude took place around 1450, when movable type was invented. And — a truer equivalency to what’s happening today — beginning in the first century AD, western readers gave up the scroll in favor of the codex — the bound book as we know it today.
To the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the book format of choice was the scroll. It was the state of the art technology for dissemination of information.
To read a scroll you gradually unrolled it, exposing a bit at a time. Afterward (remember VHS?) you had to re-roll it back to start the “right way” for the next reader.
English is still littered with words left over from the scroll age. The first page of a scroll, which listed information about where it was made, was called the “protocol.” The reason books are sometimes called volumes is that the root of “volume” is volvere, to roll: to read a scroll, you revolved it.
This prestige format was used for important works only: sacred texts, legal documents, history, literature.
To do lists or algebra, the daily method for clerks and students was to scribble on wax-covered wooden “tablets” with a stylus. The stylus had a pointy end — for writing — and also a flat end, to scrape and push the wax flat again after use.
Eventually someone thought of stringing a few tablets together into a bundle, and then replacing the tablets with papyrus. Thus, perhaps, was born the “codex.”
But nobody felt it was the best way to do things until a bunch of radicals adopted it and chose it for their own purpose. They used the codex as a way of distributing the Bible.
The codex helped differentiate the Christians from the Jews, who kept (and still keep) their sacred text in scroll form. But in addition, some alert Christians must have recognized that the codex was a powerful form in information technology — compact, highly portable and easily concealable. (Christians were, after all, criminals and living “underground” in many places.)
The codex was cheap since you could write on both sides of the page. And it held more words than a scroll (the Bible was a long book).
It also provided a unique reading experience because, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, non-linearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages to study them both at once.
Cross-checking, comparing and bookmarking were easy. A bored reader could skim, or jump back to read the “good parts.”
It was the paper equivalent of random-access-memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering. With a scroll you could only trudge through texts the long way, linearly.
Right now, says Grossman, we’re road-testing the new digital format, and we’re doing it at an astounding rate. But unlike the last time, he feels, it’s not a clear-cut case of an inferior technology being replaced by a superior technology.
What’s happening today is more complex; it’s more about trade-off.
On the one hand, the e-book is far more compact and portable than the codex, almost absurdly. E-books are also searchable, and they’re green, or greenish anyway (if you want to give yourself nightmares, look up the ecological cost of building a single Kindle). On the other hand the codex requires no batteries, and no electronic display has yet matched the elegance, clarity and cool matte comfort of a printed page.
While digital technology is associated with nonlinearity, and the forking paths through underbrush from link to link, Grossman asserts that e-books and nonlinearity are not truly compatible.
On a digital reader, try to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel. It’s “like trying to play the piano with numb fingers.” Readers are only able to creep through page by page, leap wildly from point to point or search-term to search- term.
It’s no wonder that e-books have resurrected classical-era terminology like “scroll” and “tablet.”
On the other hand, according to Grossman
The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel.
Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides.
Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell”s “Cloud Atlas” if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn’t be done.
Lev Grossman is the author of the novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.” He is also the book critic at Time magazine.
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