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.
But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine…. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.
God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience. And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving it up. —The Mechanic Muse — From Scroll to Screen – NYTimes.com.
This article does a great job compressing some of the important general concepts I introduce in my “History and Future of the Book” course.
While this is a well-written article, I’m amused at how the author happily celebrates the technological advances of the codex, but dismisses the equally revolutionary advances afforded by digital texts.
A modern Augustine would probably still hear God say “pick up and read” — and he’d have his choice of a print version, an ebook, an audiobook on MP3, or an app like the Olive Tree Bible Reader.
I continue to re-charge my Kindle, and it sits in its drawer in my nightstand, but my reading habits (and the lack of room for a lamp on my nightstand) mean I actually prefer to do my light reading on the glowing screen of the Kindle app on my iPad. (Actually, when I read purely for pleasure, I mostly find myself snatching a chapter here or there via the Kindle app on my iPod Touch.)