Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Alan Jacobs

Revenge of the Scroll

Reading, virtual and otherwise.

Alberto Manguel's rambling, digressive A History of Reading is not exactly a history; more accurately, it's a series of often fascinating snapshots. Here we have a lector reading aloud to cigar rollers in a Key West cigar factory; there we have an account of great bibliokleptomaniacs (book thieves); and look, a photograph of Eleanor of Aquitaine's tomb, with its sculpture of Eleanor reclining, a book in her hands. Manguel provides chapters on iconography, translation, forbidden books, and the categorical schemes of libraries. Interspersed with such historical commentary are Manguel's reflections on his own life as a devout reader, including his vivid story of the evenings he spent as a teenager in his home town of Buenos Aires reading aloud to the blind and elderly Jorge Luis Borges.

Manguel is a learned and enthusiastic advocate for reading, and to his credit he disavows at the outset any narrative coherence: his book, he says, "skips chapters, browses, selects, rereads, refuses to follow conventional order." This language suggests that Manguel offers us a formal or structural imitation of how most of us read, and this is arguably appropriate; but his method is too jumpy for my taste. And taste will inevitably be the arbiter in judging a book of this kind, so frankly personal and anecdotal. It's interesting that in The Gutenberg Elegies, a plea for the value of reading, Sven Birkerts finds the reading of novels normative and so defends a slow, disciplined, linear attentiveness that contrasts strikingly with Manguel's protean fluctuations. When I first read Birkerts I complained about this emphasis, but I now realize that my sympathies are more with him than with Manguel.

Still, I learned a great deal from this historical jumble. Manguel is especially useful on the manifold ambiguities of reading. In a chapter called "Learning to Read" he notes that "in every literate society, learning to read is something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency and rudimentary communication"; yet he also demonstrates that there have been many different methods of teaching reading, methods shaped not only by the teachers' goals but also by their fears. Some scholars (Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus seems to have been the first of these) worry that readers will suffer mnemonic atrophy: why memorize words that one can keep safely stowed on one's shelves—or on one's hard drive? (And indeed, since the invention of the printing press, steady rises in literacy levels have been accompanied by steady declines in the ability and willingness to memorize.) Other teachers, however, fear that the young reader will show insufficient reverence for the written word—thus a medieval Jewish ceremony described by Manguel:

On the Feast of Shavuot, when Moses received the Torah from the hands of God, the boy about to be initiated was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words "May the Torah be your occupation." Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words.

(Manguel does not note the biblical echoes here, especially Ps. 19:10 and Ezek. 3:3.) A similar reverence led the schoolmen of the medieval universities to approach key philosophical texts by means of commentaries: only the advanced, proven students were worthy to read the classics themselves. On subjects such as these Manguel provides a bagful of provocative information.

Now, had I been writing A History of Reading—well, the book would have been far less learned, let's be forthright about that. But I would have focused considerable attention on a subject that Manguel treats only briefly: the physical character of books. He does have a chapter called "The Shape of the Book," in which he describes the shift in the Middle East from clay tablets and papyrus scrolls (or, in the case of the Jews, vellum scrolls, a strong preference Manguel doesn't mention) to codexes: sheets of parchment tied together with string, the precursors to our books. But Manguel quickly moves on, sketching the evolution of desks, tables, and chairs designed especially for reading, then drifting back to Gutenberg and his press, the great Italian Renaissance humanist and bookmaker Aldus Manutius—whose volumes remain among the most beautiful ever made—and the British publisher Allen Lane's invention of paperback culture with the first Penguins. But we need an account of reading that takes much more seriously the role that these objects we read have upon our experience.

Perhaps someday we will carry featherlight laptops about with us as readily as students carry backpacks.

For example: how different the Scriptures must have been for Christians when they were really ta biblia (plural: "the little books"), that is, a set of scrolls kept in a pigeonholed cabinet, rather than being bound into a sewn codex as the Bible (singular). Indeed, the use of scrolls militated so strongly against the emerging commitment of the early church to the unity of all Scripture that scrolls were quickly abandoned: scholars have found that, in the second, third, and fourth centuries a.d., the great majority of pagan texts were recorded in scrolls, while the Bible was almost always preserved in codex form. (Manguel, by the way, mistakenly thinks the preference for codexes universal in the late classical period.)

This shift from scroll to codex is perhaps the greatest single change in the history of the read object. The mass production that the printing press made possible may have had an equally significant overall importance, but the experience of reading a hand-copied book is not so dramatically different from the experience of reading a machine-made one.

Or is it? Even some apparently trivial details of design may be more significant than we think. Gabriel Josipovici, in The Book of God, suggests that "a major reason why the New English Bible was greeted with such a chorus of disapproval [when it appeared in complete form in 1970] was surely that in most editions it was designed to look just like any other book." In the years since then we have grown more accustomed to Bibles in a variety of shapes and with a wide range of textual designs, but then—less than 30 years ago—the absence of leather binding, India paper, numbered verses, descriptive page headers, and so on must have been disconcerting. Most criticism deplored the translation's pedestrian style, but Josipovici's shrewd comment makes one wonder whether readers' perceptions of that style were not shaped by its editors' "policy of making the Bible look as much like a classical novel as possible"—just as perceptions of the Jerusalem Bible may have been shaped by its editors' "policy of making the Bible look as much like a newspaper as possible."

Moreover, all of us purchase and use Bibles with an eye toward appearance: the size, shape, and design of our Bibles transmit messages to us and to those who see us. In college and graduate school I favored a simple, hardbound version of the rsv, eschewing leather binding as a decorative frivolity. The brightly colored paperbacks preferred by some of my peers I also rejected, though for the opposite reason: they didn't seem prepared for the long haul, they lacked sufficient gravitas. (Worst of all was a phenomenon of the seventies, the Salem Kirban Bible, which printed the portions of Scripture allegedly descriptive of the end times in enormous multicolored print, surrounded by illustrations, while the remaining 95 percent of God's Word was relegated to almost unreadably tiny lettering.) In the ensuing years I have come to favor leatherbound but extremely small Bibles, perhaps in reaction against all those enormous annotated ones that make me think of crude spiritual weaponry—as though the Bible were the cudgel rather than the sword of the Spirit.

Josipovici is right—these matters are important—but I find myself returning again and again to the scroll-codex distinction, in part because we may now suspect that the victory of the codex was not permanent. An offhand comment by Manguel opens this issue: "The unwieldy scroll possessed a limited surface—a disadvantage we are keenly aware of today, having returned to this ancient book-form on our computer screens, which reveal only a portion of text at a time as we 'scroll' upwards or downwards."

One way in which computer programmers have attempted to rectify this "disadvantage" is by making it easier for us to travel within a given document, and among various documents, by the use of hypertext "links" within a document that enable rapid transfer to another location. This does, of course, help to counter the intrinsic limitations of screen size—but at what price?

Certainly the faculty of extended attentiveness, so prized by Sven Birkerts, is constantly under attack: how many of us can resist, while reading a lengthy and perhaps difficult text online, repeated invitations (highlighted in brightly colored letters, and perhaps underlined as well) to break our concentration and go somewhere else? And, as a corollary to that, hypertext documents beyond a certain length will sacrifice unity to downloading speed. Look at a CD-ROM or online Bible and you will see, not a single volume, but a screen featuring links, each of which will take you to a book of the Bible. One could argue that these electronic Bibles more closely resemble the divided scroll-cabinets of the ancient world than the books with which most of us are more familiar. It is understandable that Christians would want to render their enormous Scriptures more manageable; indeed, we have always sought to do just that—for instance, by breaking the biblical books into chapters and then into verses.

But again, what price easy access? If our system of verse division has caused generations of Christians to think of the Bible as a box of bite-sized spiritual nuggets, any one of which can be consumed without disturbing its immediate neighbors—and indeed this has been the prime effect of verse numbering—should we not be wary about making use of an electronic version of the scroll cabinets firmly rejected by the early church? There is a Law of Unintended Theological Consequences to be considered here.

In any case, this matter of electronic reading deserves closer attention. A company called Voyager has been around for some years, selling videotapes and laserdiscs of classic movies, along with what I think to be the most inventive CD-ROMS on the market. Their CD-ROM version of Maus, Art Spiegelman's brilliant comic-book-style account of his father's experiences in Auschwitz, is a tour de force: it includes not only the full text of the original two-volume Maus but also audio commentary by Art Spiegelman, substantial selections from Spiegelman's taped interviews with his father Vladek (which provided the foundation for the books), a complete transcript of those interviews, videos, and still pictures from Auschwitz, various forms of written documentation from the camps, photographic reproductions of Nazi propaganda, and so on. This single CD-ROM amply justifies the existence of Voyager.

One of their ventures is what they call Voyager Expanded Books. These "books" are available at stores on floppy disk and can supposedly be downloaded, for a lower price, from Voyager's Web site. (I have tried many times, on three different computers, to download these books, but with no success, and what Voyager calls its customer service department is apparently a great silent e-mail depository.) But in any case, here is what Voyager says about their Expanded Books:

Voyager Expanded Books are designed to change the way you read. Expanded Books keep the look and features of traditional books, while adding computer-based benefits that enhance reading. … Expanded Books are books published on floppy disks, some of which are now also available online. They contain the complete, unaltered text of the hardcover editions, but cost less. You can load them onto the hard drive of your laptop and read them anywhere: on the plane, at the beach, at bedtime (by the light of the screen). You can navigate through them easily, underline passages, write and save margin notes, copy passages into a notebook and print or export them to another document, dogear or paper clip pages, enlarge or change the typeface, or search for specific words or phrases. Some Ex-panded Books have features unique to the electronic edition: call up pictures, sounds, author's annotations and end notes just by clicking on a word.

These are bold claims, and after perusing some of the Expanded Books—John McPhee's four books on geology, the selected stories of Eudora Welty—I am prepared to agree with some of them. But not with all.

I was immediately drawn, as I read Voyager's pitch, to the apparent solution of a long-intractable problem for married or cohabitating readers, viz., how to read in bed without disturbing the person next to you. The idea of a self-lighted book, like that of an illuminated watch face, is appealing. While miniaturized lights that clip to your book have been commercially successful, I misplaced mine years ago, and I don't know anyone who is happy with them; whereas you can adjust the brightness of a laptop's screen for clear readability with little illumination of the room. And there isn't the potentially annoying scratching of pages being turned: I use arrow keys (rather than mouse clicks) to scroll down or up and make nary a sound.

The positions in which you can read from a laptop are, however, severely limited, since it is much larger than the average book, and you need to have the arrow keys readily accessible. The only position that works well for me is to lie on my back with the computer resting on my belly, but this gets tiresome after a while. (I am reminded in this context of the physician and writer Oliver Sacks, who years ago bought a photocopier for the sole purpose of copying pages of the Oxford English Dictionary to read in bed. He said, half-jokingly, that the dictionary volumes themselves are so heavy and awkward that he was afraid of being crushed beneath them. The oed is now, of course, available on CD-ROM.)

A History of Reading
by Alberts Manguel
400 pp.; $26.95, hardcover
$14.95, paper

I find that most of my evaluations of the Expanded Books tend to take the "yes, but" form: "Yes, I can do x, but that creates problem y." The plusses include the ability to carry a whole library—including reference books—in a package about the size and heft of a hardbound dictionary; to find particular words quickly and easily; to take extended notes with a "Notebook" feature, or make briefer marginal annotations; to underline with perfect neatness, employ bold or italic print, or choose large print at will. On the other hand, Expanded Books require an incredibly expensive delivery vehicle, the computer—and it had better be pretty powerful, or else loading the program, finding particular page numbers, and so on, can be quite slow. That computer requires electrical power, either via plug or via battery, and we know how quickly a laptop drains battery power. It is impossible to have small books; all books are precisely the size and shape of your computer. Moreover, while you might be able to take your laptop to the beach or the pool, I would not recommend taking it with you onto an inflatable raft. Nor (and this is a major consideration for some readers) are Expanded Books appropriate for bathroom reading.

Beyond these specific cases, evaluation becomes tricky. Some may find the format conducive to serious scholarly reading: you can underline and boldface text quickly and easily, and make the aforementioned extended notes. But, like the archaic scroll, the electronic text does not readily lend itself to the checking and comparing of one section against another, unless one has a particular word to search for; and the ability to make such comparisons quickly and easily is essential to careful reading. So I feel seriously constrained as I try to read with scholarly care, but that may be a function of what I'm used to. Someone raised on electronic reading likely would find it difficult to read my way.

Perhaps someday we will carry featherlight laptops about with us as readily as students carry backpacks, and the codex—constructed out of its primitive materials: wood pulp, ink, thread, glue—will seem as archaic as parchment scrolls now seem to us. In that case it will be fruitless to argue about the ease with which the codex-reader can compare paragraphs hundreds of pages apart. Perhaps the only case left to be made will be one that, for me, is the most important of all: the aesthetics, the feel, of a bound volume.

The most ludicrous claim Voyager makes for its Expanded Books is that they "keep the look and features of traditional books." This is true only in the sense that a snapshot of a person keeps the look and features of that person: there is a kind of resemblance, to be sure, but no one I know is two-dimensional, nor three inches tall.

I am thinking not only of the weight and heft of a book, but also of another trait possessed by traditional letterpress books: one can see, if one looks closely—and this is made easier for me, if I remove my spectacles, by my nearsightedness—the imprint, the indentation the inked letters made as they were pressed into the paper. A book has a much fuller spatial existence than an image on a computer screen, and a sculptural form that the screen can never have. Which is why there are people who love books without caring much for reading—books are, for such people, objets d'art. And perhaps the future of my beloved codexes lies in the aesthetic realm only.

Nevertheless, Voyager's suggestion about beach reading, I must confess, lingers in my mind. And for some reason it's the idea of nighttime beach reading that appeals most to me. I conjure up a picture of myself reclining in a chaise on the sands, the moon glowing dimly on the surf, my laptop open before me as I read—well, not John McPhee on geology. I'll have to come up with the right thing. Certainly not (for reasons already noted) an electronic Bible. Voyager does offer a version of the Modern Library edition of Proust— but then, I consider, to realize that vision I would have to bring the laptop on my vacation. And that would mean having access not just to the screen, but also to the keyboard and the word-processing program. In short, I would be presented with a constant temptation to get some of the work done that otherwise would simply pile up until my return to my office. With a sigh of regret, I zip the computer in its case and stow it under the desk. I'll just send it a postcard, I think—if I remember to bring a pen.

Alan Jacobs is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.

Most ReadMost Shared