[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
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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