A Codex Is Good Enough For Me

Books and ebooks, oh my, oh my. Lots and lots of talk on this one.

I’m still in the camp that, just like film and TV didn’t destroy plays but rather resulted in new story experiences, so, too, will ebooks create a new type of storytelling and — like plays — “traditional books,” even if read on an ereader, will remain.

A recent, very interesting article on this subject comes from Lev Grossman: The Mechanic Muse: From Scroll to Screen in The New York Times. (The Magicians is on my TBR pile.)

Grossman emphasises the unique aspect of the “codex”, that is, the book: “The codex also came with a fringe benefit: It created a very different reading experience. With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. You could cross-check passages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim if you were bored, and jump back to reread your favorite parts. It was the paper equivalent of random-access memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering.” Please, go read the full thing.

What made me sit up and go “oh” was that up to this point, I was seeing books as a linear narrative experience and it wasn’t until I read this did I see, no, it’s nonlinear. Stories have always existed, but if I were listening to a bard tell a story I couldn’t say, “oh, repeat that part just for me.” Even now, I’ve been known to skip to the end of a book and read it before I finish; I’m controlling the story experience and it’s nonlinear and it still works.

Grossman next looks at the new, revolutionary ebook and ereading experience, noting that this nonlinear ability to read just isn’t the same. True that; I recently tried to skip ahead in an ebook to read the end and got very annoyed that I could not easily do it. Grossman says, “Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term.” Important to note — to do the searching, one has to know the search term.

The conclusion to this is stunning and I’m still sitting back, thinking about it: “Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized.”

So, do those who think the codex is this year’s horse and carriage agreeing with that and seeing the novel as something quaint that will disappear? Obviously, I don’t — to go back to my earlier comparison, of the impact of film on visual storytelling, we still have plays. And movies. And TV. And the Internet is adding its own twists and turns and interpretations to stories.

Grossman says, “And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving [the codex] up.” To which I say, Team Grossman and Team Codex!

This is the type of discussion I long to hear when people talk about ebooks and ereading — not about the shiny technology or storage (well, OK, yes, I do find that interesting, also), but about what this means to narrative, to books, to readers.

8 thoughts on “A Codex Is Good Enough For Me

  1. Liz,

    Thanks for this! I had missed the article and will be sharing it on my library blog. Grossman makes a point that I think has been forgotten up until now. Team Grossman and Team Liz for me!


  2. He makes a valid point, which probably applies to lots of readers, although it is irrelevant for me. I pick up a novel, start at the beginning, and read straight through until the end. For non-narrative non-fiction I prefer hypertext with lots of links and images online. I can’t come up with an example where I would prefer a codex and flipping around, but you know I’ll be keeping an eye out for that.


  3. So insightful, Liz! Though I’m currently just not an ereader person, but you, with Grossman, have partly nailed WHY I love physical books so much. My son said about ebooks, “Besides, you can’t stack them.” Another thing about physical books is the happy consciousness of beloved titles all around you when you sleep! (Maybe that’s just me, but there would be no need for “Bookshelf Porn” if it were just me!) Another form of browsing.

    When you read to a little one, they love to learn the physical skill of turning the pages. I know they probably also love to learn to click on the page turn, but there is something about physical browsing that is different.

    And I agree with you — there’s room for all.


  4. This article reminded me of an activity we did in the Christian school I went to in elementary school: Bible drills. The teacher would give a Bible reference, say which word (ex: 3rd word, or maybe 2nd word, preceding verse) and the first one to find it would get a point. In more advanced versions, he’d just read the verse and you had to figure out the reference.

    Anyway, Bible drills are only an activity for the Codex! And the Bible is an example of nonfiction where browsing and random leafing through is an especially rich experience.


  5. Ooo, Sondy, you bring up such an interesting twist with that last example– how does format affect religion? The printing press had a huge effect on the Reformation. And what would the effect be if religious texts could simply be keyword searched but no longer could be randomly browsed through? People with very narrow views shaping their religion their own ways? Interesting…


  6. Tasha, there is a lot of great stuff to think about.

    Kaethe, if you had asked me before I read this, I would have said that novels are linear narratives. The argument that the codex means non linear really made me sit up and think what is and isn’t linear, and how I read and reread. While I typically do what you do, I also, at times, skim books (boring bits) or skip ahead, even to the end, to see what happens, then flip back to read or reread parts. My reading is not as linear as I thought. That said, I think novels usually are linear, and that the links in ereaders can create what I was calling “nonlinear” storytelling but I may want a better word to describe how a text can be designed to read in more than one order (very broadly put, a choose-your-own-adventure type reading) almost to the point where it is a game. I’m still mulling over the exact way that would work, and at what point a novel (say, told by 3 different people where the reader selects how many narrators to read and when) turns from novel to game. Anyway — as you can tell, this discussion (how reading and novels and stories may be impacted by ereaders as a device) is one I really enjoy.

    Sondy, having just moved and still having tons of books to unpack, oh, the temptation of them all being on an ereader! I can anticipate having books one wants for an ereader and books one wants for a shelf. I also found it fascinating that Grossman viewed the impact of how a text is stored and religion.

    rockinlibrarian, keyword searching always seems so tempting but it really is narrow because you’re limited to the keyword. how does that impact reading? experiencing story?


  7. Moving is definitely when ereaders sound best! I always said that if I had still lived in Europe — traveling whenever I had the chance — I would have bought an ereader. As it is now, I enjoyed bringing physical books, despite the added weight. But I have a hard-and-fast rule to only bring paperbacks on vacation.

    This discussion also upended my thinking. I, too, thought of my novel reading as sequential and linear. I hadn’t thought about those nonlinear aspects that are definitely there. As you say, Liz, you have to be able to think of the keyword (and spell the keyword) before you know to search for it.


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