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  • The book, the scroll, and the web

    The torah, an ancient scroll still in use today (Library of Congress); and a web page using the scrolling format commonly found on the internet
    The torah, an ancient scroll still in use today (Library of Congress); and a web page using the scrolling format commonly found on the internet

    Fans of the codex insist that it's an information delivery system superior in every way to the scroll, and whether or not they approve of ebooks, they think that all books should take the form of codices. For one thing, book pages can have writing on both sides, making them more economical than scrolls, which are typically written on one side only (this particular codex advantage turns out to be irrelevant for ebooks). For another, the codex format makes it easier to compare text on different pages, or in different books, which some scholars think fosters objective, critical, or scientific thinking. It's also easier to locate a particular section of a codex than to roll and unroll a scroll looking for something. These may or may not be advantages for books over scrolls, but with ebooks and websites, keyword searching makes it easy to find digitized text in a nanosecond, regardless of its format, plus it's possible to compare any online texts or the parts thereof simply by opening each in a different window and clicking from one to another. In the world of the ebook, codex or scroll becomes a preference, not an advantage.

    A few tunnel-visioned readers associate the codex with Christianity, viewing scrolls as relics of heathen religion. Not to be outdone, some people see online books as messianic, and others think they represent the ultimate heresy -- but religion aside, there's no particular advantage for page over scroll in either the analog or the digital world. Finally, although this example of codex superiority is seldom mentioned, the codex can be turned into a flip book by drawing cartoons on the pages and then fanning them so the images appear to move. But then again, a motion picture is really a scroll full of pix unwinding at 24 frames per second. None of this makes a difference if your ebook, iPad, or smartphone won't play Flash video.

    a flip book and a reel of film

    With a codex, just flip the pages and the horse appears to be running, while a film is just a scroll running past at 24 fps.

    There is one advantage of the book over the scroll that may apply to the computer. According to psychologists Christopher A. Sanchez and Jennifer Wiley, poor readers have more trouble understanding scrolled text on a computer than digital text presented in a format resembling the traditional printed page. But these researchers found that better readers, those with stronger working memories, understand scrolls and pages equally well.

    a page of a torah, and an image from the experiment showing scrolled and paged text

    Left: the torah has also been written as a codex (the Leningrad Codex, the oldest torah in modern book format). Right: scrolling web sites (above) and the same information presented in page format (below), from the Sanchez and Wiley experiments.

    While Sanchez and Wiley's experiments suggest that for some readers, paging is better for comprehension than scrolling, their results are only tentative, and they could even be wrong: poor readers may have trouble with scrolled text not because it's cognitively harder to navigate than paged text, but because all readers learn to read from books, not computers, and we've all been reading hard copy page by page for most of our lives.

    Here's another issue: computer text tends to be in landscape mode, while books are often printed in portrait mode (well, book mode might be the better term). Wide screenfuls of landscape text mean more words per line, more for our eyes to take in as we work our way from margin to margin. This extra work could certainly interfere with comprehension, except that computer users can easily resize text windows, making the screen just like a book page, and rendering the whole the words-per-line issue a nonissue.

    And one more thing: web designers are convinced that online readers, who must all be hyperactive, would rather click on a "next" or "back" button than use the scroll bar. But even if that's true, it doesn't constitute proof that paging is cognitively preferable to scrolling.

    More interesting, to me, is the fact that digital text, often celebrated or condemned as being so radically different from the analog text that came before it, actually began by imitating the ancient scroll, and has now "progressed" to imitating the modern book. That raises the question, will digital text eventually stop imitating older formats and develop something new?

    New technologies of text mimic older ones in order to gain our trust. The printed book copied the handwritten manuscript. Then it moved on. The manuscript copied features of speech. Then it moved on. Now ebooks imitate what you can find on the shelf at Borders and Barnes and Noble. The screen displays on e-readers like the Kindle look like paged books, because that's what marketers think will lure analog readers to the digital world. The iPad's book reader even simulates the experience of page turning, with the curl of the page moving back and forth in direct response to the reader's finger on the touch screen -- a nice special effect but one that readers may ultimately find intrusive and annoying when they're trying to access the next chunk of text.

    Gutenberg Bible and an iPad

    To get readers to accept the new technology of print more readily, Gutenberg designed his bibles with the rubrics and illuminations associated with the manuscripts his readers were familiar with. Graphics were hand painted after the text was printed, so each Gutenberg Bible is unique (image from the opening of Genesis in the Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center, Univ. of Texas). Similarly, to gain readers' trust, the new ebooks are designed to resemble conventionally-printed text, The iPad even mimics the turning of the book page -- with the curl of the page following the reader's finger as it moves across the screen to simulate turning the page of an analog book. This is a special effect which may seem amusing at first but which users might find annoying by the end of the first chapter; plus it's not clear how the iPad would deal with a book like a torah, which reads from right to left (image from an Apple ad for the iPad).

    At some point, though, electronic books are likely to develop a new format, not codex- or scroll-based, but something else again, a format taking fuller advantage of the hyperlinks and multimedia capabilities of the computer than they do now. When this happens, the question of codex v. scroll may take on the quaint sophistry of the latke/hamentaschen debate, and researchers will shift their attention to the cognitive advantages and disadvantages of text that talks and moves and jumps to hyperspace as well as reads from left to right, or in the case of torahs, from right to left. And that's when ebooks will stand a real chance of eating into the market share of conventional books.

    iTorah app showing Hebrew text on an iPad that can be paged from left to right

    The iTorah app, soon to be available from the iPad store, lets readers of Hebrew page from left to right while they read from right to left


carolynrhea.drapes@gmail.com Apr 1, 2010 1:45 pm
One of the interesting things Ive noticed is how corporate marketing departments cannot communicate fast enough to their ground-level troops on what their strategy is for iPad eBooks. At a national conference recently, I briefly spoke with a rep about the iPad, their eBooks for the device, and the companys You Tube video. Ironincally, the rep had not seen the video, although it had been making the rounds on the Internet for several weeks beforehand. Beyond the bells, whistles, and whether or not to put in the hands of a toddler, the iPad seems willing and able to combine the characteristics of a book with the interactivity of social networking and hand-held gaming. Will this kill the digital codex? I dont think so; to me it is easier to read a New York Times article on one long page than clicking several page links. Will the iPad (such a sorry name) encourage more people to read? Only if they can afford it and if they dont wish to broadcast to others what they are reading. Only if readers won't have such commodities yanked from their "hands" due to whatever reason the company wishes to use. Interestingly, there have been a couple of articles on the effect of reading from a visually private device versus the effect of random acts of advertising/showing off reading material as communicated with the visual of a tree book (urban dictionary this week) read in public places. As for me, I'll bite when the 2nd generation arrives or when I can convince my father to try it out as an alternative reading device for his remaining eyesight. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QCAPv-IKuU carolyn rhea drapes
federicoescobarcordoba@gmail.com Apr 1, 2010 1:52 pm
I think the book still has the upper hand when it comes to "browsability" (Nicholson Baker's term in a New Yorker article last year about the Kindle). You can flip pages with much more ease and come back to where you were reading. This is just too difficult to replicate with electronic readers, even when they have special effects for turning pages. Things like how far into a book a passage was, or on what part of the page a sentence was found, make browsing very effective in the codex format. Of course, when you know exactly what you're looking for, there's no beating word search. Hence, having a book format to read, and an electronic format to store and come back to when searching for specific quotes, strikes me as the ideal right now. With regard to cognitive differences, I agree that the habit of book-reading skews studies. There was an interesting discussion on a NYT forum a few months ago: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/does-the-brain-like-e-books/
james.dowden@gmail.com Apr 2, 2010 4:44 am
It would be interesting to see if the sorts of sectional location references one finds in classical authors make a come-back, to replace the once-more irrelevant page numbers. That would overcome the principal objection to scrolling text.

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