E-book or E-scroll?

Here is a very interesting discussion of why the e-book is really a step backwards in reading technology. Readers (the human kind) do a lot more with books than just start on page one and read each page in sequence until they hit the back cover. The popularity of e-books and e-readers suggests that this is exactly what many people do with many books, but it won’t do for serious study (and enjoyment) of books. The codex is still the best reading technology we have.

In his “Confessions,” which dates from the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine famously hears a voice telling him to “pick up and read.” He interprets this as a command from God to pick up the Bible, open it at random and read the first passage he sees. He does so, the scales fall from his eyes and he becomes a Christian. Then he bookmarks the page. You could never do that with a scroll….

But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine. If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. 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. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.

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.

God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience. And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving it up.

—Lev Grossman, From Scroll to Screen

via The Iconic Books Blog

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2 comments on “E-book or E-scroll?

  1. Seesaw says:

    I am glad I will never have Kindle! Give me BOOK, printed on PAPER to read, until I die! 🙂

  2. Sylvia says:

    🙂 I think ereaders may have their uses but those uses are quite limited, so I don't think books are in any danger of extinction.

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