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Medium as Message

September 8, 2011

I’m as behind in my reading as I am in my writing, apparently, and only just found this interesting article in the September 2 New York Times. In it, Lev Grossman talks about the evolution of books into a digital format, and thinks it’s a bigger deal than we’re giving it credit for. “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.”

Leaving aside the issue of his using of “A.D.” rather than “C.E.” (a personal bête noire), I found the article fascinating, particularly the revelation that English is “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.”

Then he moved to a discussion that is perhaps more germaine to our general area of inquiry:

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.

It was also, Grossman points out, a very different reading experience. Which is why I hate e-books so very much. It’s one thing to be able to call up a PDF of a product manual and keep it on my iPad; it’s quite another to cuddle up with a tablet of Sherlock Holmes. And if I’m doing research, I want it on my computer monitor, in a more flexible format than a tablet currently provides, with immediate access to all sorts of critical apparatuses. It may be just that I’m a dinosaur, with cavils that will not trouble a younger generation, but there is something sweet about poring through a book: its tangibility affords a pleasure that an acrylic screen in a plastic housing will never give.

Then there’s this, which made my heart leap for joy:

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.

Grossman, bless him, echoes my own resistance to e-books. (I also love the little dig earlier on: “Tablets were for disposable text”!) I have no doubt that they’ll  one day discover my body in my home, crushed beneath a bookcase that toppled from the weight of too many books. I also have no doubt that as the volumes are pelting me like stones, sinner that I am, my last words will be, “Ah, books!”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 9:41 am

    What an enjoyable post, Craig! I love e-books but after reading what you wrote on this digital screen of mine, I’m having doubts again. Oh, for a scroll or at least a spine.

    You’re inspiring me more than ever to write a post on Anne Carson’s Nox (a review for which appeared last year in The [still-also-paper] New Yorker, which can be read on e-tablets here: Carson (who is just amazing), like you of course, gets it: “Medium is Message.”

  2. September 8, 2011 11:31 am

    What do you think about the Loeb Classical Library going digital? For those of us who love the paper diglot facing pages format of each volume, it’s hard to imagine letting go. Here was the announcement last month:

  3. September 8, 2011 11:46 am

    Several years ago I abandoned my beloved Chicago Manual of Style for the online version; it is searchable in a way the hardcover version never was, and I get my answers faster and can copy and paste them into emails to the writers I edit.

    I think digital versions (which does not necessarily imply e-book format) are terrific tools for research, but not great for pleasure reading. I think there will continue to be a market for both physical books and digital versions for quite a while. I am concerned, however, about their fee structure: if the library becomes available only to those with institutional licenses, and unavailable to everyone else (rather like JSTOR, which seems to be their model), I will be shut out of their audience no matter how nifty they make their interface.

  4. September 8, 2011 1:29 pm

    I had not previously seen the news about the Loeb Library going digital. It seems to me that they must have faced serious competition from Perseus to take this step; indeed, I wonder how the final product will be different from Perseus (except in using the Loeb Library’s copyright material).

    (By the way, I hope you all saw the news about the Perseus being integrated into the Logos Bible-software electronic-library program. Fortunately, Logos is not charging for these data files — unlike some public domain files it has charged for in the past.)

    I have to feel disappointed though — over time I have managed to accumulate more than 200 of the Loeb volumes — and now, all of that paper seems just that much more ephemeral. I also have to feel that rather than sitting down and working my way linearly through entire books, I will use the electronic Loeb Library like I use Perseus — to quickly search and move on. Just another bit of web-ification of culture.

    I still keep my paper OED volumes and paper Chicago Manual — long after most have abandoned them — and perhaps that makes me a crotchety eccentric.

    On a separate note — if you have made your way through the Holmes stories and want more Conan Doyle [I personally found the Holmes pastiches I have read inferior to Conan Doyle] — may I suggest the Etienne Gerard stories (reviewed by by Michael Chabon here)? They are available in a variety of formats, but I liked this edition.

  5. September 8, 2011 3:16 pm

    You make a good points about whether the Loeb Classical Library will be in an e-book format (even in something like eBrary or Netlibrary or OverDrive) and whether it might be accessible to only certain academic libraries and not to the general public.

    The disappointment shouldn’t be anything like it is for those of us who owned beautiful sets of hardbound paperbook encyclopedias. The brilliant and beautiful thing about the paper Loeb volumes you (and I also) own is how the pages mirror one another and fold together and apart. If an e-book version can pull this off, then I will be surprised. I know the Logos Bible allows for a split screen, but doesn’t it require “scrolling” then in both? The interlation can be very jagged, I would guess. I rather suspect the Loeb books in digital form will look more like the volumes in the Perseus collections online, where you have to toggle between translations and the originals. I’m with Craig on valuing my tangible books in this case. (And I’ve often wondered why pulp publishers won’t just give away digital versions with the sale of the paper book. Why not let digits drive the sales of the print?)

  6. September 8, 2011 6:38 pm

    IF the digital Loeb requires separate scrolling or “page turning” it will be because of bad software not because of some problem inherent in the digital medium. For a much more thoughtful (though still somewhat biased perhaps in the other direction) see


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