Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to school

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:

co·dex (kdks)
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.


Kári said...

Is this usage really that widespread? My first reaction was just to take this as an affectation on Jacobs' part. I mean, to a certain extent, any book is a codex (book just being the Germanic word for it), but it seems contrived to start referring to all books as codices, just because you're reading them on a Kindle now.

On that subject, the true innovation of the codex, as your definition notes, was that you could write on the recto and verso of each page. Now that we're reading everything on a screen, this is no longer the case.

So instead of eBook, perhaps we should really be talking about eScrolls, as we scroll down to the next page of text.

John B. said...

Re how widespread this usage is: The fellow who posted this on the Dish also used "codex" in his comment without batting an eye; none of Jacobs' commenters commented on it, either--those facts really got me to wondering. I felt vaguely like Rip Van Winkle. So, in answer to your question, I don't know.

On my Facebook page, a friend speculates that Jacobs uses "codex" to make clearer the distinction between media--that both, to him, are "books." This, of course, sounds odd to our post-structuralist ears, but all this also raises the curious idea that new technologies not only need their own names but also (potentially) affect the names of other, ostensibly distinct technologies.

I was also fascinated to learn via those comments that Kindle editions sometimes leave text out. I snickered, until I remembered that my particular Spanish-language edition of Carlos Fuentes' novel Christopher Unborn actually has an extra section (which had appeared earlier in the novel) accidentally bound in at a later point in the novel. That novel is plenty tricksy enough without that sort of thing going on.

Given how I hate scrolling through long electronic texts, I suspect that, had I been a medieval monk, I would have been an early and enthusiastic adopter of them new-fangled books. But more interestingly--and Jacobs touches on this--is that "text" doesn't exist independently of the medium that delivers. DFW's style, now that i think of it, presumes a hard-copy delivery system; and over at the House of Leaves forum, I've mentioned in various ways that Danielewski is very self-consciously exploiting the idea of the book-as-object in ways that simply wouldn't work in an e-book format, as would also be true of a book like The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. So, yes: electronic scrolling is, for some texts, actually a step back to a more ancient way of apprehending text.

dejavaboom said...

JB: I am wiping my eyes from laughing to tears. That was an outstanding clip. Thanks for sharing.

R. Sherman said...

I've never heard codex used in that way, either. Frankly, it sounds way too pretentious and hip for me.

As for books disappearing in favor of other media, I suppose there's a benefit to preserving texts on the latest thing to prevent them from being lost over time, assuming there's no apocalypse in the offing. Nonetheless, I doubt books will lose their allure. There's something about walking by a bookshelf and spying something you've not read for a few years and joyfully rediscovering it.


John B. said...

Deja, as per our presenter's suggestions yesterday, I'm giving serious thought to using that clip as a humorous way to drive home the idea that adopting unfamiliar technologies (in my students' case, books) can cause a bit of initial trepidation but is ultimately beneficial.

Randall, yeah--I first thought "hipness" when I read that paragraph, too. And I agree with you that there's something about books as physical objects that makes them desirable and, as already mentioned in various ways above, a still-valuable means of storing text.