Monday, June 22, 2009

Why did books replace scrolls? Random access and the market for texts

Why did books replace scrolls?

That is, why did the modern form of the book, the codex, with pages bound together on a spine, replace pages sewn together and rolled up in a scroll? (Today, the term codex is mostly used for old, hand-written books that predate the printing press.)

It isn't that scrolls are no longer produced. Every week in synagogues around the world, as a new portion of the Torah is read , the parchment scroll is advanced, from right to left, until it is time to start the annual cycle again.

But if you want to browse, you don't use the scroll, you look in a book. It's easier to flip back and forth in a book, to compare passages, to read ahead and find out what is coming, to look back and remember what came before, to share with another reader who may be at a different place. In computerese, books (in codex form) are random access devices, while scrolls are sequential access machines.

And, except for the Torah, there basically aren't any more scrolls. Books have completely replaced scrolls, since books are so much easier to use.

Technologies like the printing press also made it cheap to produce texts as books, but if we didn't find books superior, it would still be possible to buy versions of your favorite novels or math texts (or dictionaries!) in scroll form. While a kosher Torah scroll to be used in public prayer in a synagogue is hand written by a scribe, there are printed Torah scrolls for non-ritual use: the technology for attaching single-sided printed pages together in a scroll isn't any obstacle. (Remember how early computer printers used to work on a continuous stream of accordian-folded paper?)

Search, which is easier in books than in scrolls, is even easier in digital texts such as we find online: e.g. here you can search not only the Five Books whose contents make up the Torah scroll, but the entire Hebrew Bible (and here is a link to the weekly portion).

So computers and the internet and the Kindle and other ways to handle texts electronically are just the latest chapters in the ancient, ongoing story of the market for texts.

(I'm not an early adopter myself, but here's a review of the new Kindle from yesterday's Washington Post that makes it sound as if, after maybe a little more progress on the electronic front, trees may soon be able to start sleeping at least a little easier.)

Your grandchildren's houses may not have bookshelves.

4 comments:

Paul said...

Though when the purpose is to seek information, and by that I mean isolated bits rather than context, I prefer electronic texts I remain wedded to paper when it comes to fiction and art.

Textual is not that far from tactual. The weight of a book seems to give further substance to good prose. The purchase of a book still indicates a commitment that electronic texts don't. And that commitment translates into a stronger and deeper relationship to the text.

If paper books disappear (and I do buy into the environmental worry about trees) I fear it will mean to some degree a further distancing from the world, more of a skimming than a diving into reality.

C.E. Petit said...

There are two other reasons that books replaced scrolls:

(1) Durability: A bound book has its case integrated into the product, while a scroll's case is a separate item that provides no protection for the scroll while it is actually being used. Further, tearing a page or three out of a bound book does not damage the entire work to the same degree as does ripping part of a scroll!

(2) Storage and retrieval: Boxes are easier to store on stacked shelving than are cylinders. Further, the spine and cover of the book (integrated with the contents, as noted above) provide a convenient place for cataloging information.

Paul said...

Another point in favour of continuing the bound book.

Both scrolls and books are not dependent on either a power source or the web. Not a new idea I know but any complex system is vulnerable to unpredictable effects. If the web crashes, or god forbid actually falls apart or is purposefully destroyed, I can still flip through my coffee table book or read my novel in the ensuing silence.

Bruce Wilder said...

"there basically aren't any more scrolls"

Hello? You are writing a blog. Blogs scroll.