May 20, 2013

Posted by in Culture | 3 Comments

Miscellany 47: Readers Past and Future

Writing is a technology, and books (both print books and e-books) are technological devices, and the technology shapes how we interact with the information content included in the books. In this Miscellany, I want to take a look at book-use, past and future.

First, let me call attention to two interesting pieces from the Medievalfragments blog: make sure to visit the site to see the wonderful photographs that accompany these pieces:

Here is a piece about the discovery of a ‘hidden archive’ of tiny slips of paper, re-used in the binding of a book:

What is so striking about the paper slips is that they tell us everyday things that we normally rarely hear about in historical sources. Take the note from 4 December 1461 sent to a chamberlain by a steward, asking “Could you please send me 6 guilders, because we need it?” It concerns internal mail from within the unknown household, likely delivered by a servant: the back reveals a fold and the designation “chamberlain”. We can almost hear him dash through the house, note in hand. A number of slips are receipts from payments: for work done by a carpenter, for the purchase of wheat for the horses of guests, and alike. Messages like these bring us as close to real medieval society as you can get. They are the medieval voices we normally don’t hear, that tell the story of what happened “on the ground”.

And here  is a piece on the great medieval chained libraries. I’ve too-often seen the image of ‘chained books’ used as ammunition against the medieval Church: that somehow this indicated an effort to suppress literacy. Far from it, as this article aptly points out:

During the later middle ages, more and more people were interested in reading, and chained libraries provided an excellent resource for those who could not afford to purchase books themselves. The system of locking the books to the room, thus allowed the public free access to read, while at the same time safe-guarding the library’s valuable collection from potential thieves.

It’s important to keep in mind that each and every book in these libraries was copied by hand and was incredibly valuable – for the materials that went into producing it, and for the hours of human labor that went into copying the text. Chaining the books was good stewardship.

Today, books are both ubiquitous and inexpensive; this affects our sense of the value of books, of literacy, and of education. When I teach medieval literature to undergraduates, I always spend a good chunk of lecture time explaining the cultural context of early English literacy – how it was brought by Christian monks, and shaken by the disruption caused by Viking raids – and the production of manuscripts. My students come away from the course with a somewhat different perspective on the value of literacy — seeing how fragile it can be, and how important, and how we may take it for granted that we have access to as much information as we want, when we want it, and yet too often don’t pay attention to the information we consume.

As we think about books, and in particular about the shift from print-books-only to a culture in which e-books (and other forms of online reading) are increasingly common, we should think also about how that shift will change our habits and our culture. It is not a question of whether or culture will change – only of how it will change, and how we will respond to those changes.

Here is a thoughtful opinion piece from The Guardian reflecting on the way that ebooks are different from print books. The author of this piece brings up an idea that I had previously not considered – but that is quite significant:

“There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.”

Ebooks can be altered, edited, revised, such that there is not necessarily a standard text ‘out there’ for people to be reading. Ebook-content could be tweaked based on the purchasing or reading habits of buyers; it could be revised based on feedback (or objections) from the public — and invisibly so. And so we have an interesting observation from the author of this piece:

“The book, seen this way, is a radically egalitarian proposition compared to the ebook. The book treats every reader the same way. It manages to balance the solipsism of reception and interpretation with a communal, agreed space in which those interpretations can be discussed.”

How will the e-book change the communal space of literary discussion?


Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.








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  1. The comment on e-books makes me wonder about the recent proliferation if not explosion of English Bible translations. Do any of them have the “authority” that the King James/Authorized Version once held – when it was the only one around?

  2. Marilyn says:

    If I might reply to the facts of your question, rather than the philosophy– the Geneva Bible beat the King James by several decades.

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    My impression is that no, there is no single translation with the cultural authority of the KJV (the Geneva Bible, though earlier and very influential, hasn’t had the extensive impact of the KJV). I think on the whole that this is a loss, in terms of cultural resonance, though on the positive side, the different translations used in comparison can help provide insight into the text.

    The KJV made it easier for people to memorize Scripture, as well, not just because it was the reigning translation, but because of the rhythm and music of the translation. There’s a poetic quality to it that’s lacking in most modern translations (not all). Something that has a regular meter or rhythm to it will stick in the memory better than irregular prose.