Among discussions of the rise of the e-book, I have found relatively little that considers how the very act of reading in this mode might change the way we read and think. Lev Grossman, writing for the New York Times, offers an intriguing perspective on this matter in his recent article, “From Scroll to Screen.” He begins:
Something 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.
Grossman goes on to discuss how the historic change from scroll to codex (book as we know it) transformed reading. In particular, it allowed the reader to move quickly through material, going back and forth, skipping ahead, etc. It’s the sort of thing we do all the time with paper books, something that is difficult to accomplish with e-books.
So here’s Grossman’s main point:
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.
Grossman is right about this, as you know if you’ve ever tried to flip around in an e-book. Even with a strong search function, this just doesn’t work.
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.
I agree with Grossman, to a point. Every change in media brings pluses and minuses. One of the big minuses of e-book reading is the inability to flip to passages one has read before, or to peek to see what is coming. This may not be a problem when one is reading a novel, in which case, presumably, you will read from beginning to end without much skipping around. But when it comes to non-fiction books, especially those from which one wants to derive the key content without reading the whole thing, the e-book format has its limitations. (On the positive side, it makes searching for a particular word or passage very easy, and it facilitates copying a passage from the book into a word processor.)
Scrolls are still used today, though rarely, and mostly for ceremonial purposes. Codices won the day when it comes to ordinary reading. I wonder if, years from now, e-books will have replaced paper books completely, or if there will be some sort of balance between the media that has to do with varied uses. It’s hard to imagine filling your coffee table with e-book readers.