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The Passion of Grossman (a draft)

September 4, 2011

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, editor and novelist Lev Grossman has an interesting and impressively accessible piece about the place of the e-book in the history of writing technologies. It’s a familiar story to anyone interested in the history of cultures. In the beginning were the scroll and the wax tablet, then came the codex (or “book”), now the e-book. The most interesting thing about Grossman’s version is the ambivalent way in which he uses Christianity to argue for the book’s irreplaceable value.

Grossman begins by explaining that the revolution currently under way from print media to digital media closely resembles a revolution that took place half a millennium ago, in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. Grossman might have called that revolution the “Protestant Reformation,” but he doesn’t explicitly go that far. Instead, Grossman suggests that Gutenberg simply brought about to its inevitable (and perhaps essentially a-theistic) conclusion, the natural ascension of the codex over the scroll—a process whose origin just happened to be the rebellion of book-thumping Christians against scroll-bearing Jews and Romans.

At this point in the narrative, Grossman has yet to cast in his lot with any of his story’s players. Using the a series of analogies—digital media is like the Guternberg’s invention of movable type, the scroll is like the VHS tape; we are like the Christians—he is careful to make functionality, rather than any particular ideology, his story’s protagonist. In other words, it’s not because of the idea of Christ that, as Nietzsche said, we no longer bow down to the Romans in Rome, but rather because of a smart use of new technology on the part Christians—“an interesting group of people with some very radical ideas who adopted [the codex] for their own purposes.”

However, as Grossman enumerates the virtues that the codex offered over the scroll, things become a little muddier. The first few benefits are basically empirical: the codex, as the Christians realized, is “a more powerful form of information technology” than the scroll. It’s small, portable, concealable, cheap, and can hold a tremendous amount of information (perfect for the Christians: “The Bible was a long book”). For Grossman, these are the bulk of the qualities that make the rise of the codex “a clear-cut case of a superior technology displacing an inferior one.” And it is in terms of these same empirical qualities—size and weight, price, information density—that e-books might be said to be simply superior to their old-fashioned counterparts. But this argument, which is common among those who celebrate humanity’s progress in developing better and better information technologies, leaves out what for Grossman is the crucial quality unique to the codex form. As Grossman puts it in functionalist lingo, the codex “also came with a fringe benefit: It created a different reading experience.”

Of the myriad of experiential idiosyncrasies attending the codex, Grossman singles out one in particular: non-linearity. One must scroll a scroll, but one can flip through a book:

With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, non-linearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim if you were bored, and jump back to reread your favorite parts. It was the equivalent of random access memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering.

Grossman’s tactic seems to be to legitimate an experiential possibility in concrete empirical terms, which makes sense given the functionalist mentality that he’s trying to penetrate. So, just as the codex’s empirical or, we might say, quantitative features—its size, weight and data capacity—made it a useful tool for the collective purposes of the early Christians, facilitating their political empowerment, so too does its main qualitative feature—its nonlinearity—facilitate cognitive empowerment: we no longer have to read what we don’t want to read, we can savor all the more deeply what we do, and our faculties of memory are freed from the tyranny of sequence.

But the nonlinearity of the codex offers us even more. Indeed, as his “supernaturally” intimates, Grossman goes on to describe yet another level of empowerment, a level even higher and more intimate than both political and cognitive empowerment. And this is where Grossman swerves. So far throughout his story (he later calls it his “fable”), Grossman has been careful to tell a story that relates developments in information technology to power struggles between political regimes. As our guide through the ancient world, Grossman has helped us understand the functional benefits that books offered when they were invented, and he has helped us get a sense of the scope of the conceptual revolution in which it played a part. Sure, that conceptual revolution happened to coincide with the rise of early Christendom, but that coincidence was for the most part just a coincidence—what the codex really had to offer were cognitive benefits that we readers of the New York Times Book Review can appreciate even today. In sum, the structure of Grossman’s argument has been to raise our esteem of the codex’s more qualitative virtues while also keeping us out of religious territory.

How strange then that Grossman should at this point invoke St. Augustine.

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.

Grossman goes on to sing the praises of the “nonlinearity that so impressed St. Augustine,” which he relates to the experiences and practices of the “deep reader” navigating a “single rich document” like a contemporary novel—all of which is juxtaposed with the image of the mindless internet-surfer, clicking his life away into the abyss. By the end of the article, Grossman’s passion is less for the Good Book than for Great Books, and he closes by clearly articulating his thesis and then reframing his metaphysical fervor in a mode of irony:

The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers power they never had before, power over the flow of their reading experience. And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving it up.

—–

All of which makes for a fine fable, and I certainly hope that all mindless functionalists heed Grossman’s tale. But what irks me is his selective storytelling, and particularly his appropriation of the fascinating case of St. Augustine for his own deluded esthete purposes.

First, the argument about the codex’s introduction of “nonlinearity”: Never mind the fact that the image of the codex book has come to both signify both metaphysical and physical totality (think of the Christian phrase, “the Book of Life,” and the Enlightenment’s adaptation, “the Book of Nature”), or that the subdivisions proper to certain bookish literary genres have come to inform and express the inexorable linearity of lives and events (“It’s the first chapter of our life together!” “It was the final chapter in our life together…”), or that the front and back covers that bind and bound all books function as absolute limits in all but the most experimental of literature (I know only of Finnegans Wake) and also furnish us with our favorite metaphors for beginnings (“open the book”), thresholds (“turn over a new leaf”), and endings (“the book is closed”). These facts Grossman entirely elides, choosing instead to oppose the liberating nonlinearity of the rebellious codex with the hegemonic linearity of the clunky, Jewish-Imperial scroll.

Indeed the issue of non-linearity within a finite totality seems absolutely key. Grossman’s gross reading of Augustine’s conversion as a reaction to the desire for or experience of empowered control over the flow of reading, some kind of agency within an experience duration, is interesting mostly because of how incredibly counterintuitive it sits beside the usual and I believe much more well informed reading of Augustine’s reading—which requires familiarity with Augustine’s place personally and historically within two very powerful traditions, both of which were intimately interwoven with the career of the codex and both of which Grossman conveniently omits: the oral tradition and Platonic metaphysics. In my version, Augustine’s conversion was not from scroll-bearer to page-flipper, but rather from Sophist to Christianized Platonist—from professional rhetorician to silent reader. It is a contentious issue whether Augustine was indeed an early proponent of the newly invented silent reading, but no reader of Augustine can overlook the fact that what Augustine claims to have found in that mode of reading the Book-of-the-World called Christianity—that literacy of the Word made flesh—was nothing less than the permanent achievement, from within the flow of physical life, of true unity with Platonic eternity. Reading the Book, as a way of life, gave Augustine forever what Platonic contemplation could only give him in the moment. The non-linearity of the Word allows Augustine to transcend the sequential finitude of physical experience.

When Grossman, with a good book open in his hands, feels his “power over the flow of reading experience,” he is feeling nothing less than the ecstasy of his eternal salvation.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. nostalgebraist permalink*
    September 4, 2011 4:08 pm

    Interesting post, Élan. I’ve read some stuff by Grossman before, and he does seem to like these simplified, sweeping historical pieces — like this one, which is actually pretty offensively inaccurate (or so it seems to me).

    But the one you linked didn’t seem so bad to me, and your criticism of it seems a bit harsh. What exactly do you mean when you criticize Grossman for being “functionalist”? It’s true that he’s writing an article that focuses on the functional differences between different textual technologies, but what’s wrong with that? I could see why one might complain about a purely “functionalist” history that claimed, say, that the codex replaced the scroll solely because of functional advantages, and that historical contingencies played no role. But I don’t think that’s what Grossman’s doing. I think his goal in mentioning all of the functional differences between the scroll and the codex is not to convince us that the codex became dominant because it was better, but rather to point out that the functional features of the codex affected history in all sorts of ways. (The implication being, then, that the move from codex to e-book will make the future different in all sorts of ways too.)

    This interpretation of the article also explains the initially perplexing bit about Augustine. It does seem weird to me to suggest that post-conversion Augustine is somehow typical of “nonlinear readers,” or that nonlinear reading played some important conceptual role in Augustine’s conversation, but I don’t think that’s what Grossman is saying. I think the point is a lot simpler: “Augustine’s conversion, like lots of other big historical moments, would not have been possible without nonlinear reading.” Grossman isn’t saying that the codex exerted a force on history in any particular “direction” — say, in the “direction” of creating more people like post-conversion Augustine. He’s just saying that it affected history a lot, if in a diffuse, directionless way. The point is simply: “dude, history would be different in all these crazy ways if we’d never invented the codex, and thus it will probably be different in various differently crazy ways after the ascent of the e-book.” Which seems pretty much undeniable to me, and it’s also something I had never really thought about before, so I can’t fault Grossman’s article for pointing it out to me.

    Note that I’m writing here as someone who knows pretty much nothing about the history of text. It’s possible that if I knew more about this subject, I would be more frustrated by Grossman’s take on it.

    If there’s anything that does bother me about Grossman’s piece, it’s the way he ignores the fact that e-books are searchable. I mean, he does mention that fact, but it doesn’t really play into his argument. It seems to me that the searchability of e-books is a functional change that will impact the way we read in a pretty large way — it will make it much easier to precisely trace connections between disparate parts of a given book, for instance. Search makes possible a kind of knowledge that was basically impossible before: knowledge of the form “this particular word appears in exactly these places in this book, and nowhere else.” With a scroll or a codex, you could laboriously comb through the whole text looking for a word if you wanted, but even then you could never be sure you hadn’t missed something. Now you can have the same sort of information in milliseconds, and with mechanically certain accuracy. Won’t this change the way we interpret texts? And doesn’t it give us a powerful tool for nonlinearly finding this or that bit of a given text? Grossman’s only piece of support for the idea that e-books are less nonlinear than codices is that it’s “painfully awkward” to bounce around nonlinearly in an e-book. That may be so (with currently existing e-books, anyway!), but don’t the search abilities of e-books mitigate the effects of that “awkwardness,” at least to some extent? It’s very strange to me that Grossman doesn’t focus on this, since it seem to me like it’s one of the main functional difference between the e-book and everything that came before.

    About Augustine’s conversion and silent reading — there’s actually still a good deal of controversy over whether the ancients even read aloud in the first place. If I remember correctly, Augustine’s Confessions (specifically, the part where he mention Ambrose reading silently) is one of the main points of evidence we have in favor of the view that the ancients usually read aloud, and there are various other points of evidence that complicate the picture. I’m not really comfortable interpreting the Confessions in a way that relies on a hypothesis about history inspired largely by evidence from the Confessions itself. (For obvious reasons, this seems a bit circular: our attitude toward the hypothesis depends on how we interpret the Confessions, which in turn depends on our attitude toward the hypothesis . . . it’s still possible to make sense of a knotty situation like this, but it’s the kind of thing I don’t personally want to pass judgment on unless I’ve thought about it more than I presently have.)

    Edited to add: Oh, and this is Rob, by the way. I changed my username.

  2. September 5, 2011 4:12 am

    I basically agree with you across the board. And I didn’t mean to suggest that I think that Grossman is a functionalist at all–in fact what I love about his piece (and I really do think that it’s remarkable) is that his tact is precisely to begin by enumerating all of the functional advantages that the codex offered over the scroll, and then to ease his readers into the possibility of their being other, more unique, virtues that the codex–and perhaps the codex alone (though I agree that his neglect of the e-book’s search function is rather dubious)–have to offer. I tried to emphasize that even when it came to the less strictly “functional” virtue–so called “nonlinearity”–Grossman did his best at first to make describe it in terms that are nonetheless recognizably empirical (if not obviously functional), through his reference to “random access memory” on the one hand, and to the idea of empowerment over the stream of the reading experience on the other. He thus situates a less recognizably functional quality squarely in relation to ideas that functionalists would presumably value: i.e. brain capacity and individual agency. But again, I think this is Grossman’s genius: he leads his readers to value the codex based on the very values that lead them so quickly to celebrate the e-book and declare the old-book simply antiquated. My gripe about his use of Augustine is that he mobilizes the scene from the Confessions in order to elevate an idealistic experience of immersive novel reading (which I obviously identify with), but I suspect that there is actually more to the relation between the phenomenology of novel reading (something I tried, but failed to write me thesis on–and which Paul Ricoeur, in his essay “Narrative Time”–look for it on JSTOR–almost explicitly relates to the experience of time that Augustine describes in and through his Confessions) and Augustine’s moment of readerly revelation.

  3. linebrick permalink*
    September 7, 2011 3:16 am

    I like this post, Élan. Of course I also agree with Grossman’s project, and of course I also wrinkled my face over the Augustine stuff. Amusingly, I thought the cartoon or diagram or whatever at the top of the article made his argument the most persuasively; someone should come along and say something about image and text and reproduceability. Not me. I liked his mention of David Mitchell; Cloud Atlas is a good old-fashioned post-modern novel, and it’s been novels of this genre that most often come to mind when I consider lamenting the apparently increasing popularity of ebooks and apparently decreasing popularity of codices (is that really what to call proper books? Thank you Grossman for a good term, if nothing else). Novels that yell at you about how far along you are physically in reading them (which bulky, self-referential Cloud Atlas does). Some very well-educated and tasteful idiots (see here: http://www.gingkopress.com/09-lit/vladimir-nabokov-pale-fire.html and you will be hearing more about them from me soon) have published the poem part of Pale Fire by itself, without any of Kinbote’s commentary, and Part&Palimpsest’s very own Elizabeth remarked to me about a month ago that this is the kind of publishing move that obviously can’t work on an ebook. Ditto for most of Mitchell’s novels; it’s a good part of reading Pale Fire and Cloud Atlas that your hands unconsciously measure time for you as you read. Nabokov has a pretty metaphor about this and the inevitability of death in Invitation but I’m sure I’ve quoted him enough (I think it is pg. 12).
    Rob: I love love love searchability and would be fascinated to know what you think in greater depth about your statement that being able to search will change the way we interpret texts.
    Élan: Please say more about silent reading and phenomenology? Your post ended just at the best part!

  4. nostalgebraist permalink*
    September 7, 2011 3:42 am

    Brief, sleepy response re: Cloud Atlas (I plan to say more in response to both of your posts later!): I was actually kind of confused/irked by Grossman’s choice of Cloud Atlas as an example. To me that book seemed essentially like a cycle of short stories — yes, stories connected in certain ways, but those connections form well-behaved threads that are mostly “cordoned off” from the narrative substance of each of the stories. (You’ve got the stuff that actually happens, and then the linkages at each beginning and end — plus the cutesy “cloud atlas” motif which, each time it appears, is pretty clearly signaled as something exceptional and different from most of the text.) Maybe I wasn’t approaching it correctly, but I rarely found myself flipping back and forth through that book looking for connections. I guess what I’m saying is that, in being six largely self-contained stories, it has effectively fewer connections between chunks than a traditional novel of the same length would have (though those connections, admittedly, are unconventional). Surely there’s a better example out there?

    It’s probably somehow relevant that there are now hypertext versions of certain dense modern/postmodern novels — Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Ada, etc?. (Not only can I not imagine reading Ada on a scroll but to some extent I can’t even imagine reading it without Boyd’s “Ada Online.”) (Edit: I don’t even know what it means to “not even be able to imagine something, to some extent.” Clearly I should go to bed.)

  5. nostalgebraist permalink*
    September 8, 2011 1:11 am

    C. — I think searchability will change things because it will make it possible, as never before, to cull inaccurate bits of our impressions of books. Human memory is (obviously) not perfect, and this applies to our memories of books (I’m just going to say “book” as a general term here, as opposed to the more specific “codex”) as well as it applies to our memories of anything else. My sense of any given book I’ve read is, inevitably, an approximation of that book based on my own imperfect memories of reading it.

    And that approximation in my head is (I think) more likely to include things that aren’t there than to exclude things that are, for the familiar old reason that it’s easier to prove the existence of something than its nonexistence. A good reader will pick up on all sorts of motifs, connections, etc. within a given book (and of course more commonplace things like events [fiction], arguments [nonfiction] . . . ). But any reader is likely to confabulate things that actually aren’t there, and once these intruders sneak in, they are nearly impossible to exorcise. Because to prove that something isn’t anywhere, you have to scour every place it could possibly be, and in many cases that would involve re-reading the entire book with an eye to determining whether or not this or that subtle motif or implication or whatever is actually there. And most of the time, such an exercise just doesn’t seem worth the effort, compared to (say) reading a new book that will provide us with a whole new set of (real or illusory) bits of substance.

    Search makes it possible to actually test all of these ideas we have about books by only expending a few minutes’ effort, rather than the hours or days it would take to do a full re-read. You always had the sense that there was romantic tension between Minor Character X and Major Character Z, but your friend denies it? Well, search for every instance of X’s name, read the surrounding passage, and see what you get. You got the feeling that the author was trying to achieve an ironic effect by using rarefied, Latinate verbs to describe base and disgusting events? Search for “ate “, “ating “, “ated ” and the like and see what you get. Obviously these strategies aren’t anywhere near perfect at answering the questions we might use them to answer, but they’re still make it feasible to test our impressions in a way that such testing didn’t used to be feasible.

    Of course this change may not be a good one. Our feelings that any given book is deep/dense/interesting may have always depended on persistent but erroneous impressions. (That is, books have until the present moment been “pumped up” by the steroids of memory error, and the entities we reveal through rigorous impression-culling may look unnaturally lean and meager by comparison.) In fact I can’t really think of any upside to this change, though I don’t think anyone will be able to resist doing this kind of thing once a larger proportion of the things we read are searchable.

    É. — Oh jeez. Apparently I misinterpreted your entire post. I think it was the paragraph that begins with “All of which makes for a fine fable . . . ” that threw me for a loop — the second sentence is vitriolic enough that it made me take the first sentence as sarcastic (with “fine fable” a term of damnation with faint praise: “a high-quality example of a bad sort of thing”). Apparently that isn’t what you meant at all, and maybe if I had read more closely I would have realized that.

    But now I’m not clear about what sort of ideology it is whose radar Grossman is supposed to be sneaking under. Maybe there are hard-core “functionalists” out there who deny that “reading experience” is important. But who are these people who are willing to consider the ways a given technology conditions the reading experience, as long as you describe this conditioning with phrases like “fringe benefit”? I agree that Grossman is trying to rhetorically win over a class of people, who, e.g., would probably recoil from a phrase like “phenomenology of reading.” But if all it takes it to switch over to a basically equivalent set of terms, or to mention techie stuff like “random access memory,” then how strong can these people’s resistance have been in the first place? That is, are you saying Grossman is able to undermine a coherent ideology (about what does and doesn’t matter in new technologies), or just that he’s able to rhetorically slip through people’s silly culture-war prejudices?

    To flip things around, I can imagine one of those really hard-core functionalists responding that Grossman’s concerns (and yours) are really about functionality after all, because they’re about a functional deficiency in currently existing e-books: they’re “awkward” for nonlinear reading. Clearly a deficiency even on pure functional terms, since a change that made nonlinear reading less awkward could be framed as an “upgrade,” a definite improvement in functionality. Thus, while this limitation may condition us towards linear reading, it’s a qualitatively different beast from, say, the way that codices condition us to associate pieces of paper (and by extension: wood, trees, “leaves” of things other than paper, etc.) with literature and literary culture. That isn’t a result of a “bug” or a “feature,” of anything that could be “fixed”; it’s a bit of conditioning that necessarily results from the medium but which has nothing do with its functionality. So a hard-core functionalist might be forced by their ideology to ignore that sort of issue, but not (they might protest) something as solidly functional as the need to facilitate a certain sort of reading that plenty of users value (i.e., nonlinear reading).

    Edit: This comment originally included some snide remark about people who read the Wall Street Journal, but then I looked at my Firefox tab that had the article in it and realized it’s actually in the NYT. I was getting it confused with Grossman’s piece about genre fiction, which was in the WSJ.

  6. September 8, 2011 2:04 am

    R & C:

    Well I should be clear that I believe that silly culture-war prejudices simply are the stuff of ideologies. And my main beef with Grossman, though I know I haven’t articulated this clearly yet even to myself, is that his use of Augustine is not merely, or so innocently, a wily manipulation of his readership’s prejudices. By the latter, what I mean is that I take Grossman to be deploying a recognizable referent from high-cultural history to vivify the significance of the codex for a readership whose commitment to being cultured could, relatively easily, lever them into holding opinions about the value of a technology that they might otherwise declare hopelessly antiquated. One of the ways in which Grossman greases the lever is by explicitly secularizing the significance of Augustine’s experience (cf. Augustine “interprets” the voice as the voice of God), which he does for fairly obvious reasons–the Times’ readership being what it is (Jewish? “Lev Grossman”?)–and which in any way keeps it consistent with his approach earlier in the article, where he also framed the emergence of early Christianity in strictly political terms. But Grossman’s final thrust in the piece is to mobilize in his readers a sort of psueo-spiritual sentimentality for the rich, magical experience of novel reading. My question, which presupposes that some experiences are conditioned in certain ways by cultural contexts (and not simply, for example, “psychological” universals), is whether Grossman’s effect does not in certain ways depend on an unacknowledged Christian heritage–one which since John the Apostle, but most explicitly in Augustine’s memoir, relates an experience of incomparable sublimity with a metaphysical act of reading (the Word).

  7. September 17, 2011 6:45 pm

    A few thoughts to add:

    É– Your discussion of Augustine fascinated me (and reminded me that someday I should reread the Confessions). Specifically, I was drawn to this statement:

    Augustine’s place personally an historically with two very powerful traditions, both of which were intimately interwoven with the career of the codex and both of which Grossman conveniently omits: the oral tradition and Platonic metaphysics. In my version, Augustine’s conversion was not from scroll-bearer to page-flipper, but rather from Sophist to Christianized Platonist—from professional rhetorician to silent reader.

    I may be messing with the history of text, here, but I am going to try to explain the reason that this fascinated me.

    There is evidence from Aristotle and many scholars (including Thomas Szlezák) believe that Plato’s doctrines were primarily taught orally through the academy and that the dialogues preserved today functioned as both advertisements and teaching tools, but were not meant to communicate some metaphysical doctrine in and of themselves. It seems to me that the Christianizing of Platonism requires that Plato’s works exist in codex form or similar because the Middle and Neo-Platonists who influenced Augustine were responsible for writing some of the first detailed commentaries on the dialogues as individual dialogues. While the Academy still existed at this time, whatever oral doctrine there might have been had essentially died out and the influence of Plato’s texts and the doctrines of previous Platonists became the dominant ideology. It is possible, of course, that some of the commentaries functioned secondarily to give the individual dialogues their own scrolls which allowed more easier perusal within the linear format. I am not sure. However, by the time that scholars began to Christianize Plato, the scholarship had moved toward reading the texts in groupings or finding similarities of thought in different dialogues and then interpreting those with Christian doctrine. This intertextual understanding of Plato, I believe, requires the ability to flip from page to page and assemble the pieces. (For reference, I am drawing most of the understanding of the timeline of Platonic thought from Diskin Clay’s Platonic Questions.)

    This assessment too, like Grossman, takes “a recognizable referent from high-cultural history to vivify the significance of the codex,” but what I find actually more interesting is the way that the codex lead to different kinds of literary analysis. Plato’s Socrates quotes significant amounts of oral poetry from memory throughout the dialogues. In the Protagoras Socrates and Protagoras perform an almost-modern version of literary criticism on a Simonides poem, because each of them can recite it from memory and envision the poem as a whole to recognize word choice and inconsistencies. However, this conversation could not have occurred with a longer work of prose. The use of verses and meter is essential to the detailed analysis without the use of a physical text and it is even hard to imagine a similar feat with a scroll (even if it did have useful tools like underlining or marginalia). The division into pages in a codex seems necessary for literary analysis of that depth on a work of prose. In the Theaetetus Euclides asks a slave boy to read a document which Euclides created after talking to Socrates about a discussion Socrates engaged in with the late Theaetetus.Notably, Euclides’ account removes the narrator-Socrates from the equation, leaving the dialogue as though it were the script of a play. This removes any of the analysis Socrates might have provided. Although this is a prose fictionalized representation of an oral-to-written prose transmission, it seems to me to represent the difficulties faced in analyzing prose texts before codices.

    Now onto slightly more coherent thoughts.

    R– I agree with you about the importance of digital searching. I don’t know about other digital formats, but the Kindle, at least, allows for bookmarking and highlighting which can be viewed independently of the text itself and also searched, as well as appearing on the digital form of the text. Although I am a huge bibliophile and could never give up the codex, I also cannot imagine getting through my thesis without my Kindle version of Plato’s Laws.

    The Laws is Plato’s longest work and it’s internal organization is labyrinthine. The dialogue constantly folds back on itself referencing earlier statements and then moving wildly to other topics. Using the index in my codex copy of the Laws was time consuming and difficult because if my brain remembered a synonym for the translated word instead of the word itself, I might have to try 4-5 different possibilities before finding the word I was looking for and then search each section of the book in which the word appears and only then could I go to the Greek. It was a nightmare. On the other hand, in my digital copy I could simply search the word by typing it in. It provides snippets of the few lines of text surrounding the word. If the word was wrong, I simply had to type in another set. Furthermore, I could search within my highlights and bookmarks for the word and get significantly more quickly to the necessary passage. Each passage, of course, was marked by a Stephanus page number which would provide me with the section in the Greek text.

    This form of non-linearity is not, however, necessary when reading a novel. It might make the later act of literary analysis easier (e.g. how many times does the author use some particular word or phrase and in what contexts), but it does not aid novel reading or even a classroom discussion of the novel (which often requires flipping back and forth quickly between the citations of other students). Grossman, as a novelist, probably fails to see this potential because it simply does not interest him as an author.

    I rarely read novels these days. I used to read them constantly when I was younger– and I think that the only reason that I might have liked the e-reader then was that it was lighter to carry around in my purse and that I could make the font size larger so my eyes might tire less quickly and I would have been equally annoyed by the prohibitive slowness of flipping back 15 pages. Reading primarily non-fiction these days and primarily reading things which I will later analyze, there is a lot of power in the new non-linearity of e-readers (however, I still only read about 5% of my material on an e-reader and for many documents I still prefer a codex or a printed version of the document).

    All of the was far more rambling than I intended, but just some general thoughts.

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