Heads Will Scroll

One of my favorite YouTube videos spoofs what a medieval help desk would look like as monks sought to transition from the traditional technology of the scroll to the new technology of the codex. Keeping the debate alive between eBooks and pBooks is Lev Grossman in the New York Times. His observation? That eBooks are a step backward from pBooks.

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Why? The shift reverses the advance made in going from the scroll to the codex almost two thousand years ago. The scroll was abandoned because it was expensive (you can write on both sides of the paper in codex form, not so the scroll). It also got the boot because it is hard to navigate. Says Grossman,

With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. You could cross-check passages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim if you were bored, and jump back to reread your favorite 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.

So the irony of the eBook is that it eliminates nonlinearity–the very thing the digital age is supposed to glory in!

Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term.

Grossman even suggests that Augustine’s famous conversion story would have been impossible with a scroll. That fourth century (not quite yet) saint heard, “Pick up and read,” and interpreted that as being God’s voice telling him to randomly open the Bible–something that could only be done with a codex.

So there you have it. Financial, educational and spiritual reasons to preserve the codex. That’s enough for Grossman. What about you?

8 responses to “Heads Will Scroll”

  1. My library which likely exceeds 12000 volumes could all be put on a kindle or one of the other electronic devices available today. Now when I think of having at my disposal one of those devices with 50-100,000 volumes on it, I feel almost sick with greed, the greed for knowledge. But there is something intrinsically satisfying about a book, holding it in one’s hand, smelling the scents of centuries and usages in its pages, writing in the margins, underlining for emphasis. Alas! Books like everything else do not last. There is the acid, the vicissitudes of exposure to the elements, even if it is just the cold and heat of an attic or the light of day and the electric by night. Learning involves the accumulation of vast amounts of knowledge, knowledge which can be checked in depth and detail, from whence a different picture of life and understanding evinces itself. But wisdom? Who can give it? Only God, and He never quite says how.

  2. My library which likely exceeds 12000 volumes could all be put on a kindle or one of the other electronic devices available today. Now when I think of having at my disposal one of those devices with 50-100,000 volumes on it, I feel almost sick with greed, the greed for knowledge. But there is something intrinsically satisfying about a book, holding it in one’s hand, smelling the scents of centuries and usages in its pages, writing in the margins, underlining for emphasis. Alas! Books like everything else do not last. There is the acid, the vicissitudes of exposure to the elements, even if it is just the cold and heat of an attic or the light of day and the electric by night. Learning involves the accumulation of vast amounts of knowledge, knowledge which can be checked in depth and detail, from whence a different picture of life and understanding evinces itself. But wisdom? Who can give it? Only God, and He never quite says how.

  3. Interesting point! As a copywriter, when I write longer documents for clients I always include a table of contents. Using Microsoft Word, I can easily move all over the document–much faster than I could with physical pages–simply by hitting “Back” to the TOC and then clicking on the hyperlink to the section in question. Plus, I don’t stain the pages with my sweaty, feverish, almost-missing-my-deadline fingers.

  4. Right you are. Navigation tools are key for this sort of thing. Obviously, there are all kinds of advantages with digital formats over print. Can the disadvantages be minimized? That’s the goal for those developing hardware and software. Every year they’ll improve. Will the improvement curve flatten out? Maybe not until the eReader and WiFi are brain implants!

  5. Let us hope so. He almost gets me killed every time I get on the road and encounter the bicycle riders and other traffic. In the South, the driver behind the cyclists invariably will come over into my lane, forcing me to stand my car on its nose practically to avoid a head on.And I haven’t even mentioned the all too likelihood of hitting the cyclists. Mixing cars and bicycles is madness.