Last month while camping in the Sierras, I saw a woman reading a book using a
Kindle (Amazon’s Wireless Reading Device). It looked interesting (portable,
convenient, easy to use) but I wasn’t tempted. Why not? I have always been
addicted to books but more particularly, to books in the form of a codex.
I recently finished reading The Archimedes Codex (by Reviel Netz and
William Noel, Da Capo Press, 2007, ISBN-10: 030681580X, ISBN-13: 978-0306815805)
which presents the many “technology upgrades” that the works of
between about 212 BC (when the great mathematician and scientist was
killed by a Roman soldier in Syracuse, Sicily) and now. The Archimedes
Codex is the story of how three of Archimedes’ works started out in scroll form
and ended up as a medieval codex in very poor condition sold at public auction
in 1998 as the Archimedes
Palimpsest. Since 1998, Archimedes’ works have gone through their
most recent IT upgrade and next month (at
2 pm on October 29th, 2008 to be precise), a digital version of the
Archimedes Palimpsest is scheduled to be released on the web.
Will Noel (of Baltimore’s
Walters Art Museum) writes in The Archimedes Codex:
“Nothing is more dangerous for the contents of old documents than an
information-technology upgrade, because mass data transfer has to take
place and somebody has to do it. The transition from the roll to the
codex – the book format we know today – was a revolution in the history
of data storage.” (pp.70-71)
“As the ancient world disappeared, its gods went with it. And as
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many
classical texts, if they were not condemned as dangerous, were dismissed
as irrelevant. It is not that Christians willfully destroyed them very
often; they just ceased to copy them.” (p.74)
I think we live in a time when books are changing form, just as they did in
the 1st through 4th century AD when the codex took over from the scroll.
Which books will survive the transition from codex to Kindle?
daughter is working on the P4
project at Carnegie Mellon’s
Posner Collection to record more of Shakespeare and Twain for YouTube.
I am enjoying watching this project develop.
The best list of reasons I have found to prefer reading a book in codex
form to reading the same text on a computer is in Reading the OED: One Man,
One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea (Perigee Trade, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0399533982, ISBN-13: 978-0399533983. This book is full of obscure but
delightful words from the OED like “Nod-crafty (adj.) ‘Given to nodding the
head with an air of great wisdom.'” and “Peristeronic (adj.) ‘Suggestive
In Chapter F, Ammon Shea writes of his admiration for all of the amazing new
ways to search and understand that are now available because of the electronic
version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Shea then describes why
he still prefers the codex. Here are some of his reasons:
What Can’t You Do With an Electronic Book?
- Drop it on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut.
- Leave a bookmark with a note on it, then happily find it years later.
- Get tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages.
- Have a sense of time and investment because of pages read. On a
computer “…everything is always in the same exact spot. When reading a
book, no matter how large or small it is, a tension builds, concurrent
with your progress through its pages.”
- Sit down prior to using it, open it up and sniff its pages.
- Have “…that delicious anticipatory sense that I am about to be
utterly and rhapsodically transported by the words within it.”
I would add to Shea’s list the physical delight in the art of
book making. A computer offers nothing like the feel of the
embossed image of a book cover under my finger tips. Shea ends with:
“But what does the computer know of the comforting weight of a book in
one’s lap? Or of the excitement that comes from finding a set of books,
dusty and tucked away in the back corner of some store? The computer
can only reproduce the information in a book, and never the joyful
experience of reading it.” (p.58)