Monday, 26 July 2010

The technology of reading: a long view (i)

I'm currently enjoying reading a (print) copy of Lionel Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World (Yale). It's a great read for anyone interested in the cultural heritage of literature, information, authorship, book selling and publishing. When I first picked it up in Topping's Ely bookshop (more of which in a later post) I did not expect illumination for the many puzzles that beset me in my professional life, but that's precisely what it has provided. The conventional axiom is that Gutenberg and movable type were the point at which books and technology began to merge - but I'm now reminded that this isn't true. The technologies of reading and publishing have entwined and evolved since writing was first invented - often in response to the available resources and the cultural pressures in play as societies have changed. So over the next few days I'm planning a sequence of short posts on some of "eureka" moments I've experienced while reading the book.

Let's start with publishing formats. Casson describes the formats known to have existed in the Ancient world - starting with wood and clay tablets, and graduating through papyrus and parchment scrolls to the codex (bound volumes). Each one of these technologies had advantages and disadvantages for their manufacturers, readers and librarians. In his discussion of the shift to codices, Casson shares some statistics using archaeological finds from the dry sands of Egypt, as base data:
"Over 1,330 pieces of Greek literary, scientific and other such writings have been discovered that date to the first and the second centuries: all are on rolls save less than twenty, a mere 1.5 percent, on codices. In the third century the percentage rises from 1.5% to about 17 per cent; clearly the codex was gaining favour. Around AD 300 the percentage has climbed to 50 percent - a parity with the roll that is reflected ins some preserved representations which depict a man holding a roll next to one holding a codex. By A.D. 400 it is up to 80 per cent and by A.D. 500 to 90 percent. The roll still had centuries of life ahead of it, but only for documents; what people read for pleasure, edification , or instruction was virtually all on codices."
After describing the manufacture of codices, Casson highlights a remarkable exception to their gradual adoption over several centuries. He points out that all eleven earliest surviving copies of the Bible date from between the end of the second century and the early part of the third century and all eleven are codices. Yet the evidence previously quoted suggests that in the same period as these codices were manufactured, the vast majority of non-Christian literary, scientific, historical, philosophical and spiritual texts were still produced on parchment and papyrus rolls. The codex was not yet the preferred format.

Casson comments that there could be a number of contributory factors that led to the Christian preference for the Codex ranging from the fact that Rome - where Christianity was quick to take hold - is where the codex format seems to have begun, to the fact that the codex was free from the cultural connotations attached to Jewish parchment scrolls and pagan papyrus scrolls. Moreover, he suggests that Christians used their scripture as a manual for living - rather than simply a sacred document - and the codex was much more suited to this utility.

All of which set me thinking. It seems that the most significant change to the format in which text and information was disseminated from ancient times to the advent of the eBook was driven by a coalescence of technological development (aka human inventiveness), emotional and cultural sensibilities and sensitivities, and utility. Or to put it another way, the drivers for change were the needs and preferences of the user or consumer of the text. It was all about what the customer wanted.


  1. Sheila,

    This is a wonderful bit of writing about early books that is quite refreshing with its parallels to today's world. The transition to ebooks and digitization in general is a powerful force to look anew at the evolution of printed books, and you've provided some great inspiration here, thanks!

  2. Thanks for turning me on to Casson, whom I haven't yet read; re your last paragraph, I think the first sentence is spot on but the second understates the dynamic nature of technological change. Codices afford users the option of flipping pages to find a particular spot in the text (with interesting implications for the centrality of memory in priestcraft and prophecy) -- but until a user had encountered a codex it might not even occur to them that this was a useful property of the device. It's too reductionist a position IMO to say either that users changed books or that books changed users: the key insight is about the way they change each other. The process typically follows an S curve, where things often move very slowly until a tipping point or critical mass occurs, then with astonishing rapidity.

  3. Ardal
    Sorry I have only just caught up with your comment. Yes - I can quite see th point that you are making and I totally agree that change is a symbiotic (and an ongoing) process - I thought that I had iplied as much. If I was reductionist in my final point it was to drive home the fact that in recent decades publishers have been somewhat removed from the customer "experience" and this is something I shall be exploring in my presentation at Tools of Change.
    In the meantime I am not sure about the "tipping point" as a metaphor for what will happen in our industry in the coming years. We are not changing from one form to one new form (as in scroll to codex) - we are changing from codex to multiple, multiplying and morphing new forms). It is going to be intriguing to see how the tipping point theory plays out in a diversifying content delivery environment. I am very cynical about the belief that we will find one "right" technology that will act as panacea to our woes!