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.
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?