Rock and scroll

Hand holding a scroll, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number: 21.88.10. Photo: ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1921.

Of all ancient writing technologies, none has been more revived in our days than the scroll. Just think about it, the codex is so passé. The bound book is so not suitable for the digital age, for the universe of hypertext.

One of the misconceptions about the ancient scroll is that it was a continuous page. This is a misleading metaphor which wouldn’t have emerged had the digital page not given rise to it. The leaves of a book are bound together at the spine, which is one of the four edges of a leaf. The membranes of a scroll are connected at one of the edges as well. So in a fundamental way, the scroll and the codex are the same thing, individual sheets connected together. It’s the way the sheets are connected that distinguishes the scroll from the bound book, producing a variety of forms, reading styles, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The apparent seamlessness of scrolls provided the metaphor for our engagement with digital text. The hybridity of the webpage may be discerned in what we’re most familiar with: the scrollable internet page. On the one hand, the web is organised like the ‘pages’  of a book. On the other, the pages are more like the membranes of an ancient scroll. We don’t turn the pages when we ‘browse’ a website. Instead, we scroll up and down, unfurling the webpage, as though it were a cylindrical object. The page of a bound book reveals itself in its entirety once it’s been turned. The membrane of a scroll is less daring. Unfurling a scroll, and by extension, a webpage, is a drama of disclosure and concealment. Text comes in and out of focus, as the scroll turns towards or away from the reader. The ritual value of unfurling scrolls, such as Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu holy texts, depends on this particularity. Many websites today, including Apple’s webpages devoted to their newly released or previewed products, make use of this feature, tapping into the neo-ritual potential of webpages to disclose and conceal themselves in a dramatic fashion: as the user scrolls down the page, images and text slowly emerge, only to fade out as the user scrolls them away.

The ancient scroll may have been superseded in the West by the bound book, but now that the typographical age has come to an end, the scroll is ready to assume a far more important place in the new digital era.

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