Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"...e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible." - Lev Grossman

"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 [linear] you do in an e-book."

Excerpts above and below from "The Mechanic Muse — From Scroll to Screen" by Lev Grossman,, September 2, 2011;  "A version of this article also appeared in print on September 4, 2011, on page BR13 of the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: From Scroll to Screen."

This article provides an intriguing micro-history of reading formats: from scrolls and tablets to books (codexes?) to e-books? I esp. recommend the first image titled "THE READING DEVICE: A SHORT HISTORY" which nicely illustrates some of the article's main points.
Full disclosure: I stumbled on this article when I was looking for more info about "Fillory" - the doubly fictitious world introduced in Lev Grossman's fantasy novel The Magicians, which I'm happily reading this week.
"Scrolls were the prestige format, used for important works only: sacred texts, legal documents, history, literature. To compile a shopping list or do their algebra, citizens of the ancient world wrote on wax-covered wooden tablets using the pointy end of a stick called a stylus. Tablets were for disposable text ... At some point someone had the very clever idea of stringing a few tablets together in a bundle. Eventually the bundled tablets were replaced with leaves of parchment and thus, probably, was born the codex.

"... the codex was a powerful form of information technology — compact, highly portable and easily concealable. It was also cheap — you could write on both sides of the pages, which saved paper — and it could hold more words than a scroll. The Bible was a long book.
"...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.

"...Over the next few centuries the codex rendered the scroll all but obsolete.
"...Over the first quarter of this year e-book sales were up 160 percent. Print sales — codex sales — were down 9 percent.

"...On the one hand, the e-book is far more compact and portable than the codex, almost absurdly so. E-books are also searchable, and they're green, or greenish anyway
"...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.

"...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."
IMAGE selected by Steve Gilbert 20120418
Photo "Self portrait for LinkedIN profile picture. SteveMann with EyeTap"  Date 29 March 2004 ...Author Glogger

By Glogger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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