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The Book, the Scroll, and the Web

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the better pencilUniversity of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at the difference between scrolls and codexes.

The scroll, whose pages are joined end-to-end in a long roll, is older than the codex, a writing technology — known more familiarly as the book — with pages bound together at one end. Websites have always looked more like scrolls than books, a nice retro touch for the ultra-modern digital word, but as e-readers grow in popularity, texts are once again looking more like books than scrolls. While the first online books, the kind digitized by the Gutenberg Project in the 1980s, consisted of one long, scrolling file, today’s electronic book takes as its model the conventional printed book that it hopes one day to replace.

Fans of the codex insist that it’s an information delivery system superior in every way to the scroll, and whether or not they approve of ebooks, they think that all books should take the form of codices. For one thing, book pages can have writing on both sides, making them more economical than scrolls, which are typically written on one side only (this particular codex advantage turns out to be irrelevant for ebooks). For another, the codex format makes it easier to compare text on different pages, or in different books, which some scholars think fosters objective, critical, or scientific thinking. It’s also easier to locate a particular section of a codex than to roll and unroll a scroll looking for something. These may or may not be advantages for books over scrolls, but it’s not a problem online, where keyword searching makes it easy to find digitized text in a nanosecond, regardless of its format, plus it’s possible to compare any online texts or the parts thereof simply by opening each in a different window and clicking from one to another. In the world of the ebook, codex or scroll becomes a preference, not an advantage.

A few tunnel-visioned readers associate the codex with Christianity, viewing scrolls as relics of heathen religion. Not to be outdone, some people see online books as messianic, and others think they represent the ultimate heresy — but religion aside, there’s no particular advantage for page over scroll in either the analog or the digital world. Finally, although this example of codex superiority is seldom mentioned, the codex can be turned into a flip book by drawing cartoons on the pages and then fanning them so the images appear to move. But then again, a motion picture is really a scroll full of pix unwinding at 24 frames per second. None of this makes a difference if your ebook, iPad, or smartphone won’t play Flash video.

There is one advantage of the book over the scroll that may apply to the computer. According to psychologists Christopher A. Sanchez and Jennifer Wiley, poor readers have more trouble understanding scrolled text on a computer than digital text presented in a format resembling the traditional printed page. But these researchers found that better readers, those with stronger working memories, understand scrolls and pages equally well.

While Sanchez and Wiley’s experiments suggest that for some readers, paging is better for comprehension than scrolling, their results are only tentative, and they could even be wrong: poor readers may have trouble with scrolled text not because it’s cognitively harder to navigate than paged text, but because all readers learn to read from books, not computers, and we’ve all been reading hard copy page by page for most of our lives.

Here’s another issue: computer text tends to be in landscape mode, while books are often printed in portrait mode (well, book mode might be the better term). Wide screenfuls of landscape text mean more words per line, more for our eyes to take in as we work our way from margin to margin. This extra work could certainly interfere with comprehension, except that computer users can easily resize text windows, making the screen just like a book page, and rendering the whole the words-per-line issue a nonissue.

And one more thing: web designers are convinced that online readers, who must all be hyperactive, would rather click on a “next” or “back” button than use the scroll bar. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t constitute proof that paging is cognitively preferable to scrolling.

More interesting, to me, is the fact that digital text, often celebrated or condemned as being so radically different from the analog text that came before it, actually began by imitating the ancient scroll, and has now “progressed” to imitating the “modern” book. That raises the question, will digital text eventually stop imitating older formats and develop something new?

New technologies of text mimic older ones in order to gain our trust. The printed book copied the handwritten manuscript. Then it moved on. The manuscript copied features of speech. Then it moved on. Now ebooks imitate what you can find on the shelf at Borders and Barnes and Noble. The screen displays on e-readers like the Kindle look like paged books, because that’s what marketers think will lure analog readers to the digital world. The iPad’s book reader even simulates the experience of page turning, with the curl of the page moving back and forth in direct response to the reader’s finger on the touch screen — a nice special effect but one that readers may ultimately find intrusive and annoying when they’re trying to access the next chunk of text.

At some point, though, electronic books are likely to develop a new format, not codex- or scroll-based, but something else again, a format taking fuller advantage of the hyperlinks and multimedia capabilities of the computer than they do now. When this happens, the question of codex v. scroll may take on the quaint sophistry of the latke/hamentaschen debate, and researchers will shift their attention to the cognitive advantages and disadvantages of text that talks and moves and jumps to hyperspace as well as reads from left to right, or in the case of torahs, from right to left. And that’s when ebooks will stand a real chance of eating into the market share of conventional books.

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