Faculty meetings for the new semester began yesterday, and in today's presentation our guest speaker, yet another in a long procession of guest speakers over the years whose job it has been to tell us about Kids These Days, told us about Kids These Days. One of the things about Kids These Days: They have all these gadgets whose chief purpose seems to be to enable their tendencies toward ADD-ness. Moreover, as we know, their most frequent encounters with written language occur not via paper but via electronic screens of various sorts.
I get that, and I am comfortable with that. Or I thought I was until, via The Daily Dish, I ran across this article by Alan Jacobs, in which he announces that he's begun to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest on Kindle.
Here's the bit that tripped me up:
So I bought the Kindle version. All the above problems [chiefly, the paperback's bulk] solved . . . but . . . I found that I was missing the visual cues that codexes offer. I don't often miss them, or not all that much anyway, but in this case I miss them. Wallace goes off on these long riffs, but on the Kindle it’s hard to tell how long they are; whereas when holding the codex I could flip ahead to see how long I should be prepared to keep my concentration before I can expect a break.
In case you didn't catch it, Jacobs does not use the word book; he uses the word codex. To see why this pulled me up short, have a look below at the definition I know for codex, along with a picture of one:
n. pl. co·di·ces (kd-sz, kd-)
A manuscript volume, especially of a classic work or of the Scriptures.
[Latin cdex, cdic-, tree trunk, wooden tablet, book, variant of caudex, trunk.]
Word History: Latin cdex, the source of our word, is a variant of caudex, a wooden stump to which petty criminals were tied in ancient Rome, rather like our stocks. This was also the word for a book made of thin wooden strips coated with wax upon which one wrote. The usual modern sense of codex, "book formed of bound leaves of paper or parchment," is due to Christianity. By the first century b.c. there existed at Rome notebooks made of leaves of parchment, used for rough copy, first drafts, and notes. By the first century a.d. such manuals were used for commercial copies of classical literature. The Christians adopted this parchment manual format for the Scriptures used in their liturgy because a codex is easier to handle than a scroll and because one can write on both sides of a parchment but on only one side of a papyrus scroll. By the early second century all Scripture was reproduced in codex form. In traditional Christian iconography, therefore, the Hebrew prophets are represented holding scrolls and the Evangelists holding codices. (Thanks, Free Dictionary; image found here.
Add to this my recent reading in which Aztec codices get mentioned with some frequency and, well, maybe you can see why seeing a novel published in 1996 referred to as a codex was a bit startling. You can gather that this usage is brand new to me. Is it for you as well?
But more to the point, I found myself wondering about the implications of this term's application to an object that's usually not called a codex. Books are indeed an ancient technology, but are books themselves ancient--which is to say, passé? Is the choice to call them codices meant to honor them or to draw attention to their jalopy-ness? And what might be implied here regarding those of us who still prefer to read off paper rather than off screens? Are we just slightly-hipper versions of these guys?
As you no doubt have determined by this point, I have no conclusions one way or another about this, aside from the usual truisms: Usages change. But it's hard not to be tempted to read this particular one as a kind of commentary on the position printed text now holds in our culture, that now some (many?) consider it to be on some sort of par with hand-written and illuminated manuscripts. That is a strange thing to contemplate as I once again face the necessity of explaining to students why having a book for the class is a good, if quaint, notion.