Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Book and the Scroll (and the Computer)

Cross posted on

Last week I attended a lecture entitled "The Book as Computer" given by Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania. I thought, based on the name, that it would be a look into the future of books as they relate to the internet, ebooks, portable readers, etc. I was excited about the lecture. I was also completely wrong about the lecture. It was actually a look into the past, into the history of books.

Stallybrass's premise is that throughout history there have been two basic modes of reading -- the scroll and the book. The format of a scroll forced readers to follow the text from beginning to end. You had to scroll through it one inch at a time. There were no ways to bookmark a favorite passage in a scroll, or at least it was very difficult to do. And referencing related passages was impossible without a really good memory. Books, on the other hand, have historically allowed for more discontinuous reading. Marking passages, skipping chapters and bookmarking sections for easy reference were made simple by the book. The book also gave people the ability to index information. Tables of contents and indexes allowed readers to find the specific parts of the book they really wanted to read, what Stallybrass calls "indexical reading." The reader took control of what they read.

Many people fear that the computer is bringing about the death of the book, but Stallybrass suggests that the computer is actually an extension of the historical concept of the book. Like books, computers allow for discontinuous reading, bookmarking, and skipping unwanted information. What is Google if not one giant index? The computer is pushing indexical reading to its limits.

According to Stallybrass (but I'm not so sure about this, myself), the concept of reading a book straight though did not come into fashion until the advent of the modern novel. In fact, the early novels were criticized precisely because they took the control of information away from the reader and put it into the hands of the author. To be engrossed in a story, to be passively carried along wherever the author wanted to take you, was considered a dangerous thing. The novel, therefore, changed the way people read, not only fiction but almost everything else as well. For example, people used to read newspapers from cover to cover. In effect, the novel returned the world to reading scrolls.

Stallybrass calls the novel a "brilliantly perverse" interruption in indexical reading. Movies and TV have for many people replaced the novel as the their preferred scrolls, and people seem to be returning to the habits of indexical reading on their computers. As an audience member asked, are we witnessing not the death of the book but rather the death of the novel? I hope not. This brilliant perversion is what we writers of fiction hold dear. I, personally, cannot see novels dying, but as technology changes the novel will have to change with it.

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