Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

scrolls and codexes

Several commentators — and by the way, I am thrilled by the quality of comments this blog has received in its short life — several commentators have asked how the issues I’ve raised so far affect one kind of reading in particular: reading of the Bible. Ten years ago — Lord have mercy, has it really been ten years? — I wrote an essay about Alberto Manguel’s delightful book A History of Reading that raised some of these issues. The essay is available online only for those who subscribe to the Christianity Today Library, so I’ll just provide some of the relevant excerpts here, and then come back to the topic at a later point.

How different the Scriptures must have been for Christians when they were really ta biblia (plural: “the little books”), that is, a set of scrolls kept in a pigeonholed cabinet, rather than being bound into a sewn codex as the Bible (singular). Indeed, the use of scrolls militated so strongly against the emerging commitment of the early church to the unity of all Scripture that scrolls were quickly abandoned: scholars have found that, in the second, third, and fourth centuries a.d., the great majority of pagan texts were recorded in scrolls, while the Bible was almost always preserved in codex form. (Manguel, by the way, mistakenly thinks the preference for codexes universal in the late classical period.)

This shift from scroll to codex is perhaps the greatest single change in the history of the read object. The mass production that the printing press made possible may have had an equally significant overall importance, but the experience of reading a hand-copied book is not so dramatically different from the experience of reading a machine-made one.

Or is it? Even some apparently trivial details of design may be more significant than we think. Gabriel Josipovici, in The Book of God, suggests that “a major reason why the New English Bible was greeted with such a chorus of disapproval [when it appeared in complete form in 1970] was surely that in most editions it was designed to look just like any other book.” In the years since then we have grown more accustomed to Bibles in a variety of shapes and with a wide range of textual designs, but then — less than 30 years ago — the absence of leather binding, India paper, numbered verses, descriptive page headers, and so on must have been disconcerting. Most criticism deplored the translation’s pedestrian style, but Josipovici’s shrewd comment makes one wonder whether readers’ perceptions of that style were not shaped by its editors’ “policy of making the Bible look as much like a classical novel as possible” — just as perceptions of the Jerusalem Bible may have been shaped by its editors’ “policy of making the Bible look as much like a newspaper as possible.”

Moreover, all of us purchase and use Bibles with an eye toward appearance: the size, shape, and design of our Bibles transmit messages to us and to those who see us. In college and graduate school I favored a simple, hardbound version of the RSV, eschewing leather binding as a decorative frivolity. The brightly colored paperbacks preferred by some of my peers I also rejected, though for the opposite reason: they didn’t seem prepared for the long haul, they lacked sufficient gravitas. In the ensuing years I have come to favor leatherbound but extremely small Bibles, perhaps in reaction against all those enormous annotated ones that make me think of crude spiritual weaponry — as though the Bible were the cudgel rather than the sword of the Spirit.

Josipovici is right — these matters are important — but I find myself returning again and again to the scroll-codex distinction, in part because we may now suspect that the victory of the codex was not permanent. An offhand comment by Manguel opens this issue: “The unwieldy scroll possessed a limited surface — a disadvantage we are keenly aware of today, having returned to this ancient book-form on our computer screens, which reveal only a portion of text at a time as we ‘scroll’ upwards or downwards.”