[Humanist] 27.139 format and experience in reading?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jun 19 23:33:02 CEST 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 139.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 20 Jun 2013 07:06:23 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: reading experience

Some ruminations on the book, if you will. Comments, esp offering 
insights which make better sense of the variety here contemplated, are 
most welcome.

First a question: is there any reliable evidence for the relationship 
between the format of the inscribed surface and how the inscribed text 
is read and used? I suppose one could say that the unit of epigraphic 
writing is the large static rectangle read almost always from a fixed 
position, or like a modern billboard while passing. It does not move 
about and unlike the billboard is unlikely to be changed or moved in the 
lifetime of an individual. Is its actual function simply its presence? 
For handheld devices there are more options: the unit of the scroll is 
the column or page that moves past the reader; for the codex it's the 
opening that appears whole when the page is turned; and for the computer 
screen all three -- the fixed rectangle, the moving columns and the book 
opening. Among designers of digital displays of text, which is the 
favourite? My guess is for simple reading the scroll-like moving 
rectangle because it most neatly serves the continuous act. Thus the 
tablet machines -- Kindle, iPad etc.

The codex, in the form of the display volume, especially in a series 
such as an encyclopaedia, was like the epigraphic stone, more there to 
assert authority than to be read. Impressively large collections of 
books in someone's house still serve that function, though it may not be 
primary to the owner.

Where all our digital reading devices to my mind fail to equal the codex 
is paradoxically in functions of reference, where the technology is the 
most analytic. All that is on offer is word-search and the display of 
thumbnail images that allow the reader to look for the beginnings and 
ends of chapters and the like. There is nothing equivalent to the 
tactile overview (over-feel?). Of course the physical codex fails from 
our digital perspective because it does not allow us easily to find 
where someone said something, or not.

If my own practices are any guide, the complementary nature of codex and 
digital device indicates we should be thinking (as we seem, alas, so 
seldom to do) in terms of both/and rather than either/or.

There is a wonderful story of a learned mediaevalist, expert on St 
Augustine, who one day was approached by a PhD student who was going mad 
attempting to find out whether Augustine had ever written a particular 
sequence of words. (Anyone who has read Augustine in extenso will know 
how frustrating it is to look for a particular formulation of an 
Auguistinian kind of idea.) The student asked the professor the 
question. The professor went to his bookshelf where the collected works 
were kept, ran his finger along the volumes, came to a particular one, 
opened it, flipped the pages, ran his finger down the columns, then shut 
the book, put it back, turned to the student and said, "Yes".

The professor was clearly old school. I very much doubt there are many 
of them left. I have the sense of a permanent change in our relationship 
to the written word. Edward S. Casey, in Remembering: A Phenomenological 
Study, argues that we have nearly obliterated human memory as once was 
by externalizing a poor idea of it. That there has been a loss can't, I 
think, be questioned, only explored. But the Spenglerian shape of the 
story he tells makes me think that the myth of a decline and fall has 
taken over. Surely we are not victims of a technological determinism. 
Surely human intelligence has moved on. But do we have any sense of what 
is has moved to?

Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, Research Group in Digital Humanities, University of
Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist (dhhumanist.org);

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