JOURNAL TOPIC: [today's tunes: "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin. Bonus: Stanley Jordan's version]
of you in the on-the-ground course have all seen the sign: "There is
glory in the attempt." Describe how this idea applies in your life. Season your answer by listening to the music and reflecting on the evolution/remix of English and the stories we tell. How does your understanding of the same idea change as you age/mature/gain more experience?
2. Vocab quiz
5. Preview of coming attractions
1. Choose first literary analysis book, post choice/reason to your blog, and start reading.
2. Complete/curate Beowulf materials.
3. Check the course blog and double-check your blog.
4. Read "From Scroll to Screen" (as follows) and please comment to this post with your views on e-readers versus books. Be ready to discuss Tuesday 9.4.
The Mechanic Muse: From Scroll to Screen
by Joon Mo Kang (in original, which you can see via link:
By LEV GROSSMAN
Published: September 2, 2011
The New York Times
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.
The last time a change of this
magnitude occurred was circa 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented
movable type. But if you go back further there’s a more helpful
precedent for what’s going on. Starting in the first century A.D.,
Western readers discarded the scroll in favor of the codex — the bound
book as we know it today.
In the classical world,
the scroll was the book format of choice and the state of the art in
information technology. Essentially it was a long, rolled-up piece of
paper or parchment. To read a scroll you gradually unrolled it, exposing
a bit of the text at a time; when you were done you had to roll it back
up the right way, not unlike that other obsolete medium, the VHS tape.
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.
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 — the stylus also had a flat end, which you used to squash and
scrape the wax flat when you were done. 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. But nobody realized what a good
idea it was until a very interesting group of people with some very
radical ideas adopted it for their own purposes. Nowadays those people
are known as Christians, and they used the codex as a way of
distributing the Bible.
One reason the early Christians
liked the codex was that it helped differentiate them from the Jews,
who kept (and still keep) their sacred text in the form of a scroll. But
some very alert early Christian must also have recognized that 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.
codex also came with a fringe benefit: It created a very different
reading experience. 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. (Some ancients found temporary
fixes for this bug — Suetonius apparently suggested that Julius Caesar
created a proto-notebook by stacking sheets of papyrus one on top of
Over the next few centuries the codex
rendered the scroll all but obsolete. 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
Right now we’re avidly road-testing a new
format for the book, just as the early Christians did. Over the first
quarter of this year e-book sales were up 160 percent. Print sales —
codex sales — were down 9 percent. Those are big numbers. But unlike
last time it’s not a clear-cut case of a superior technology displacing
an inferior one. It’s more complex than that. It’s more about
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 (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.
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.
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 is the author of the novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.” He is also the book critic at Time magazine.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 4, 2011, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review in The New York Times with the headline: From Scroll to Screen.