10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books


5. The shift from scroll to codex was in turn enabled by a shift from papyrus to parchment and then paper, but honestly, the continual changes in materials essential to writing and reading alone could constitute a few dozen revolutions, at different places and times all over the world. Let's just say that what the things we read are made out of has always been very, very important.

6. This is especially true for arguably the most important reading revolution -- the industrial revolution. Gigantic presses powered by steam (and later, electric power) could crank out books and newspapers and advertisements that strained the always-fickle paper supply. Eventually, papermakers were able to invent a variety of mechanical and chemical techniques engineer decent-quality paper out of pulped wood, a supply that (unlike cloth rags) appeared limitless. Print was off to the races, and dozens of other inventions helped make generating texts cheaper and faster. Having beaten back the scroll, our anthropomorphized codex now jostled against increasingly-important nonbook documents glutting the alphabetic information stream, like newspapers and office memoranda. More people were reading too, thanks to cheap primers and a state-driven educational push towards universal literacy: historian David Hall has called this the "literacy revolution." If print in the Renaissance and early modern periods was a proof-of-concept, a limited beta - the Xerox PARC GUI and first-generation MacIntosh of the new modes of producing and consuming text - the age of industrial print was Windows 95.

7 & 8. If those analogies made sense to you, it's because reading has transformed even further in the electronic age. Entire new families of audiovisual media, transmitted wirelessly or on discs, cylinders, reels, and cassettes, became more essential to culture even as text continued to proliferate exponentially. The development and expansion of computing, too, introduced a few powerful wrinkles, like the conversion of alphanumeric text to binary languages, text written to be "read" by computers rather than humans, and greatly increasing the amount of reading and writing we perform on screens.


9. There are two other reading revolutions worth mentioning, broad tendencies even less fixed to a particular historical moment. Communications legend Harold Innis suggested that the history of culture itself was characterized by a balance between media that persisted in time - think stone inscriptions and heavy parchment books -- and those offering the greatest portability across space, like paper, radio, and television. Not only does this offer a grand scheme to think about media, it also suggested (for Innis at least) that modernity, for good or ill, had tipped the balance toward the ephemeral-but-portable, what Engelsing would call extensive rather than intensive media.

And that's the common thread to all of these revolutions. They each try to explain how we got to where we are today, and to assess the value of the cultural changes that happened along the way.

10. My favorite reading revolution, though, isn't very famous, even though it was conceived by the very famous media theorist Walter Benjamin. It's the shift from vertical to horizontal writing, and then back to vertical again. He lays it out in his 1928 book One-Way Street:

If centuries ago [writing] began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisements force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.

This is a revolution that encompasses the entire history of the book, from manuscript scrolls on papyrus to industrial paperbacks. It also takes the broadest field of reading possible, from graffiti on the walls of ancient cities to silent movies and children's scrawls on a chalkboard. It sets aside all of the inside baseball about technological achievements and the inherent properties of the medium.

No media is ever encountered in a vacuum, just as no real revolution happens in one date you can point to on the calendar. We can't talk about a revolution of the book without talking about a revolution of the desk. Benjamin's description of reading here abstracts from everything we know about concrete history, only to return it to lived experience and the relationship between written language and the human body.

Once you begin to think about it this way, Benjamin's "reading revolution" turns out to be the only one listed that's a genuine revolution, a 360-degree return, occurring in space as well as time. It brings together text and images onto a single screen and encompasses a broader range of media in continuity with our present. We may take our Kindles to bed like paperback books. We may hold our phones and tablets upright on the train like we would newspapers or magazines.

If Benjamin's reading revolution is real, it's one we continue to participate in.


1. Reading in the trenches of World War I. National Library of Scotland.
2. A Washington printing press. Library of Congress.
3. Reading hieroglyphs. Nationaal Archief.
4. Reading microfilm. LSE Library.
5. Special glasses designed for reading in bed. Nationaal Archief.

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Tim Carmody is a contributing editor for The WireMore

Tim Carmody is a contributing editor for The Wire. He was previously a senior writer for Wired and The Verge, and has also written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Newsweek, Technology Review, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

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