Ancient texts in new worlds

codex-in-crisis-front3I am now the proud owner of number 167 of the hand-bound limited second edition of Anthony Grafton’s little booklet called Codex in crisis.


The colophon states amongst others:


Cover paper Neenah Classic Laid in Peppered Bronze

Text paper Mohawk Superfine in Bright White

Flyleaf paper Frazier Pegasus in Black



Codex in Crisis, an adaptation of Grafton’s article Future Reading. Digitization and its discontents, previously published in The New Yorker, is published by The Crumpled Press, who, as they state on their website, perish to publish. Their business model revolves around the production of ‘custom cut, bone folded, hand sewn pamphlets and books’ for the real bibliophile. And they are beautiful.


The contents itself are equally inspiring. Anthony Grafton, who is Professor of History at Princeton University, and is a specialist in the field of Renaissance and Reformation studies and Historiography, published amongst others, books on The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) and What Was History?: The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).


Codex in Crisis concentrates on the history and development of the book as format, medium and conceptual idea. Grafton spook about his book during an interview held with him about a week ago as part of the Historisch Café (historical café) series organized amongst others by Athenaeum bookstore in Amsterdam. The talk was entitled ‘Would Erasmus use Google’, and focused on the book and its relationship to the accelerated world we live in today in which changes are going faster than we could ever have imagined before. Referring to his previously published article, Grafton talked about how he holds The New Yorker in high regard, jokingly calling it one of the last magazines where they actually read what they publish and where they work with a whole lot of smart and alert people.


codex-in-crisis-colophonGrafton’s main focus is on how the situation for books and reading texts has changed the last years. This shift has had some major implications where at the moment the newspaper is dying in the US and staff is being sacked en masse in US publishing industries. The world of publishing and bookselling is in uproar: only a few major players survived; Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and Borders, that’s it, and Borders is almost bankrupt. Simultaneously we are seeing the rise of eBook readers. As Grafton remarks, they are only getting better and better. But their development will be like the codex to the scroll. We won’t get rid of the old format just like that, but Grafton does foresee a development in which the main thing we are going to be reading in the near future is electronic text. This will bring major changes, not only in reading but also in our consciousness.

Referring to an UK eBook survey, Grafton remarks that scholars spend on average 8 minutes with an online article. The online medium is very well amenable to what is called power skimming: your eyes just scan the text and don’t really process. We get lots of information, but we have no clue.

In the US the bookstore has been driven out. Grafton’s surprise at seeing so much bookstores of all shapes and sizes in Amsterdam makes him to conclude that their must be more of a reading culture in Europe than in the US. The decline in reading culture has been going hand in hand with the rise of a gaming culture, where according to Grafton every male under 30 in the US plays games for at least 2 hours a day. This effects not only their way of reading but it is also a form of competition in time spend for leisure.

Grafton also sees the changes taking place within the library itself. In the library nobody reads books anymore, it is increasingly filled with fast computers. And a café.

The new kind of reading is an interactive way of reading. Students still read intensely says Grafton, but the level is lower than two generations ago. The GI bill generation, which transformed the universities and made them radically more democratic, saw the rise of Catholics and Jews in universities, who came to college because they now could. There are real changes to be seen, says Grafton, in current student and university culture. He claims that for instance Jakob Burckhardt’s Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien is simply found to hard to follow for students nowadays. And that’s a worry. The students do write better according to Grafton, but they don’t read as well anymore.

 codex_in_crisisWhen asked what he is aiming at with his book, Grafton responds his goal was to state his worries but also his exhilaration about the new possibilities for the book. The idea of the universal library, which is never going to happen of course, was what Google and its comrades promised to create. But one of the first problems was that there were not an estimated 30, but 100 million books in the world. Another problem is that although you can find a lot of content via Google, you can not access it all. It is searchable, but that does not mean it is all available. In this way Google could be seen as a live catalogue. They are fast and at the same time incredibly secretive. This explains Robert Darnton’s stance in a recent article in The New York Review of Books. Darnton, whom Grafton calls an eloquent and brilliant guy, is currently head librarian of the Harvard libraries. But he is also a diplomat. Harvard library is digitized by Google, but what Google will not do is guarantee that it will never charge any money to have access to the books. That is why Harvard is breaking off their deal with Google: they want the guarantee of free content. This is another reason why we will never have an universal library since not all the libraries are or will be working together with Google. And what about the books that Google is not interested in: Third World country books for instance. Those cultures are neglected. If it will be anything, it will be a universal Western (plus Russian) library.anthonygrafton


Grafton is however a huge enthusiast of digitizing books and the possibilities this offers for research, information retrieval and teaching. The thing that worries him though is again the reading. Online reading is interactive, and thus distracting: you move in irrational paths. In a novel on paper there are no links, no distractions. Will you still have writers that write these kinds of static, thick books if people don’t read these books anymore? Writing will change with reading. But, history has shown us also that no system of publication was capable of ruining every kind of book writing production.


What about the analogy of history? Johannes Trithemius said that the printed book was going to ruin writing; only copying is really reading, reading means reading aloud and printing was going to destroy that contemplative and meditative form of reading. But forms of Benedictine writing and reading survived and even improved in the print world. And as it survived the move from script to print so Grafton hopes it will also make the present shift.


But do we still write just as well? Look at the rising use of emoticons. Emails are shorter and shorter. The online medium is not suited for that. The email isn’t the letter. The scroll still exists, as does the manuscript, but they are not what they were. Grafton’s aim is not to be totally reactionary and he does also see a lot of good coming from online forms of communication. The rise of political blogs and interactive communication is wholly good and its influence on politics is great.


The book is an incredible easy and convenient system. Links are nothing; they are ephemeral, where footnotes are a rich standard. After a year more than half of the links are no longer working. This is a big problem, without upkeep electronic texts don’t survive.


Grafton concludes by stating that notwithstanding the current developments, more books are being published and sold than ever before. But nobody is reading them.


crumpled-pressTurning back to Codex in Crisis. Although I enjoyed reading the book very much, my critique of the book (or rather of the adapted essay) has to do with the, to my opinion, lack of truly opinionated argumentation from the side of the writer. I applaud his deliberation of all the different arguments pro and con the current development of the book both concerning its preproduction and mental conceivement, its birth as content depicted on a certain carrier (be it print, scroll or screen), its frequently simultaneous production or publication by a publisher, printer or the writer itself, its postproduction and dissemination into the world of reading and readers, and its consumption and role in communal coffee shops or social media sites, depicted in an amazingly concise stream of thoughts which is at the same time filled with anecdotal and detailistic reminiscences. One might even call me a big fan of this kind of overview writing, in which the scholar summarizes, analyses and distills main trends and developments, covers simultaneous occurrences and clears up conceptual difficulties.


grafton-and-his-bookwheelAnthony Grafton does all this in his fine little booklet, but he does leave me somewhat expectant in the end. But maybe this has more to do with my own misperceptions and hopes that such an outstanding scholar may have the answer or may offer a clear path out of the problems that face the book in its present and future forms. But Grafton does not offer such an answer and of course he doesn’t, how could he, he is foremost a scholar and not a visionary and praise him for that. He is a historian, not a weather forecaster.


Another small comment has to do with the conservative stance his critique towards the new online book culture sometimes takes. Although he does downgrade his own critique frequently when considering the other side of the coin, his description of the (lack of) possibilities of the format of the weblog and his meager depiction of the possibilities that Open Access offers to the Humanities, strike me as a little outdated, but that might again be my own predisposition. But his conservatism in this respect does not annoy me in the way other writers and thinkers can, mainly because he gives clear examples and argumentations where, according to him, the main problems of the digital medium lie when compared to the past print situation. He only wants to preserve what is good in tradition in the middle of all this innovation going on. Grafton hopes the future will be a hybrid one, in which a laptop stands next to a pile of magazines and a stack of books, which the scholar can browse simultaneously accompanied by a nice coffee confined in one of the newly designed communal focused city libraries. This corresponds to Grafton’s feelings of melancholia towards an increasingly lost past (“It’s an old story, quiet and reassuring: bookish boy or girl enters the cool, dark library and discovers loneliness and freedom”) but also to his excitement (though of course critical) about the new possibilities the digital world offers the book.


Codex in Crisis offers no question mark and no solution, only memories and hopes for a better future.



2 comments on “Ancient texts in new worlds

  1. jeroenn
    March 7, 2009

    Bonne notte. Wow nice post. Scary times for publishers. It’s true, I used to read the paper religiously and now rarely to never pick up a proper broadsheet newspaper. But I’m quite the bibliophile myself, so hope they never disappear. But although I don’t believe they will, maybe that’s just because not having books around at all is such an alien idea, since 99% of us have grown up with (or at least some access to) books.
    The colophon in your book reads like a poem 🙂
    It took me a long time to accept that digitization is a word. I always wanted it to be digitalization.
    The thing about skimming papers without getting much out of it: recognizable. I remember reading through quite a few journal articles in that way.
    Funny you should mention Burkhardt: I have an ebook only Bookmark folder with him in it.

  2. jannekeadema1979
    March 8, 2009

    Merci, all credit to Anthony Grafton of course, who’s ideas are mainly reflected in this post. True, digitization is quite a tongue-twister, but we will have to get used to it as it is turning into the standard. Do check out other stuff at Project Gutenberg, such a rich (re)source. Nice teapot by the way 🙂

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