.... 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.
The 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 another.)
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 scroll.
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 trade-offs.
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.
That is a lengthy quote from an engaging and thoughtful essay, "From Scroll to Screen", written by Lev Grossman for the New York Times (Sept. 2, 2011). Grossman puts his finger directly on something that I've experienced over the past few months as I've tested, used, and formed a wary like/dislike relationship with my Kindle (a Christmas from "the family"): the unique ability the reader of a traditional book (codex) possesses in jumping to and fro throughout the book, something that so far has not been replicated in any real way on devices such as Kindle. It is, for me, the biggest drawback and most frustrating aspect of the Kindle; it also gives me hope, however, that the physical, traditional book will long be with us, as it possesses several characteristics that really cannot be reproduced or truly replaced by a digital device.
This really came home to me when I made the mistake of buying the first volume of Bruce Waltke's excellent commentary on Proverbs for use on my Kindle, to use in teaching the weekly Bible study I lead at my parish. I quickly realized how much, in using commentaries, Bibles, dictionaries, and various reference works, I jump around—sometimes frenetically—flipping from this section to that section, index to page, page to endnotes, and so forth. With a book, this is easy and natural; I've been doing it for decades, and I've long enjoyed being able to glace through a book quickly or more leisurely, randomly or more systematically, depending on the book and my reason for looking through it.
Not so with the Kindle, which is, as Grossman states, completely linear and therefore noticeably limited:
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.
Granted, e-book technology is going to change and improve; it will do so, I suspect, constantly in the years to come. But I think this matter of linear and non-linear reading is will long be an issue for many people, including myself. It is related to another issue: with books, I can have several open on the desk/table in front of me, and I can therefore multi-task, so to speak, when researching or studying. Books are amazingly flexible in this regard. In addition, physical books have a certain, dare I say, personality, a singular quality that is more than the sum of their size, paper weight, font, cover, and so forth.
Or, put another way: I like to work and write in a room filled with books. To me, there is something singular and special about walking into a room filled with books, whether a bookstore (preferably used), public library, or (the best) a personal library.
That said, there are some definite pluses to a Kindle. Most of these are fairly obvious:
• The ability to have hundreds of e-books and texts in a single device. Invaluable, obviously, for travel and storage.
• The ability to acquire available e-books immediately, and usually at prices comparable to or less than the cost of a book. A huge plus, without a doubt. However, there are, I believe, certain subtle dangers inherent to such instant gratification, one of them being a failure to really appreciate the value (not simple monetary in nature) of a book. Put another way, it feeds a certain "fast food", hyper-consumerist mentality, in which more and more things become disposable.
• The ability to read samples of books that you might not be able to find right away in the local bookstore or library. I've downloaded many samples, and then have bought the physical book.
• The Kindle is very easy to read, and the text can be sized and leaded according to personal tastes.
• The ability to view Word documents, PDF files, and other personal files on the Kindle. Very helpful.
I'm sure there are more, but those stand out to me at the moment. What do you think?