The Passion of Grossman (a draft)
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.