The neo-scroll turn

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We are so surrounded by books that we forget how revolutionary the emergence of the codex – the bound book made up of stitched sheets stacked together and enclosed between a case – was to the cultures around the Mediterranean and beyond. The book as we know it.

Writing predates the advent of the book by several millennia, but the success of the latter was no less momentous than the invention of script. In the history of human culture, there was a scriptural turn in around 3200 BC, but also a codex turn around the 2nd century AD. That’s when the parchment codex began to replace the papyrus scroll, an Egyptian invention, in areas around the Mediterranean. The world of writing, reading and study wouldn’t be the same again.

The codex proved a superior technology in two key areas: resistance and handling/searchability. The leaves of animal skin which the codex quickly incorporated (literally) fared better in humid climates, away from the sands of Egypt and neighbouring regions. Vellum is still the most resilient soft writing material with its low tear-and-wear factor and slow burning property. For example, it’s a lot easier to destroy a piece of papyrus or delete a magnetic or digital file than it is to burn a scrap of parchment. The codex is also easier to handle and the text written on pages (a feature of bound books) is easier to locate than a scroll/roll is to unravel or a particular piece of text inscribed on a membrane (the ‘page’ of a scroll) is to find. On the other hand, scrolls are more space-efficient and easier to carry or conceal.

The fortune of the codex was such that the scroll meekly left the European stage, except for a stopover in medieval England and few other places, where scrolls were still used for government records. But even there, the poor searchability capacity of the scroll was quickly (re)recognised. It should also be said, however, that in Judaism, the scroll was never to lose its pre-eminent place as a sacred support.

More recently, however, we’ve witnessed a strange comeback of the scroll which may be called the neo-scroll. This is not a scroll in the traditional sense, but a new writing support which borrows heavily from the ancient exemplar: the webpage. I submit to you the fact that the webpage is a curious misnomer: the webpage should really be called a web-scroll, for that’s what it really is: an e-membrane unfurled endlessly on a digital roll. Our vocabulary acknowledges this simple fact: we don’t turn a webpage backwards and forwards, but we scroll it up and down. Yet, the fact that we call it a webpage testifies to the enduring success of the codex through the centuries. The internet, however, is not organised like a library of codices, but more like what I’d call a rollotek: countless (sc)rolls of text stitched together through hyperlinks.

The digital age beckoned the neo-scroll turn. Imagine navigating the web like flicking through the pages of a Kindle, it doesn’t really make sense. Instead, huge rolls are being deployed and unrolled with one or two of our fingers. The original searchability limitation has been circumvented by the power of instant search. Problem solved.

The codex turn might be turning a corner in many areas of modern literacy, but it does well to remind ourselves that writing didn’t start with the scroll or the codex, and it most likely won’t end with either. We need to keep the ball rolling, sorry, the page scrolling.

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