2b.i The uses of books

Writing is the most powerful tool invented by humankind because it is a tool of the mind. The history of the book is the history of how people have shaped the intellectual tool of writing in order to make it more efficient, more versatile, and easier to use. In Greece, before 600 BC, there was no clear decision regarding whether writing should go from left to right or from right to left (or even boustrophedon, where the direction of writing followed the path of the plough in a field and lines had to be read in alternating directions). Romans read aloud, or were read aloud to by a slave.

Progressively, the text departed from the linearity of the spoken word and became organized in a visual way, giving more control to the reader. A major turning point was the invention of the codex in the first century AD. But, though the codex was a vastly more efficient medium for text, it took four centuries for it to completely replace the scroll and evolve from an essentially linear format to a tabular one, gradually giving the reader more control over the pace and form of reading.

Many incremental advances were necessary in order to make the book what it is today. In medieval monasteries, the monks in the scriptoria were to read silently in order to avoid distracting their colleagues. This helped to shape the book as a more visual entity adapted to efficient reading. Reading itself was for many centuries mainly conceived of as a ruminatio (pondering at length). In the eighteenth century, a new relationship to reading appeared, making it legitimate to browse through vast amounts of reading material. This form of “extensive reading” became pervasive with the advent of newspapers and magazines.

The history of reading shows that the medium used for displaying text is important, because it determines which operations are easy for the reader to perform. Also, it puts varying amounts of emphasis on the visibility of the text and on the readers’ interactions with it. In this regard, text is the nexus of a fundamental tension. On one hand, it is a product of language which is of limited duration, and which depends upon a syntactic organization of the words. On the other hand, since it is a visual entity, text may also surpass its linear bounds and play upon the resources offered by layout, typography and colors in order to create other types of meaningful events.