After the codex

By Razib Khan | September 8, 2010 10:18 pm

440px-Köln-Tora-und-Innenansicht-Synagoge-Glockengasse-040Today we’re seeing a transition in the medium of literacy. I’m alluding to the emergence of digital formats, which will transform the physical experience of reading. You’re part of the process right now, unless you’ve printed this out. Of course we have books around, and we will for quite some time. I assume for the most precious elements of our literary collections the physical book will remain preferred until the current generations pass on. But this transition is not the first one. The book, also known as the codex, has been the primary medium of literacy in the Western world (which I will define as from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic) for only ~1/3 of the whole period across which humans have been literate. Before the book, there was the scroll, and before the scroll, there were cuneiform tablets. From Wikipedia:

The Romans used precursors made of reusable wax-covered tablets of wood for taking notes and other informal writings; while codices of parchment or papyrus appear to have been widely used as personal notebooks, for instance in recording copies of letters sent (Cicero Fam. 9.26.1). The pages of such notebooks were commonly washed or scraped for re-use; and consequently writings on codex were considered informal and impermanent.

The first recorded Roman use of the codex for publishing and distributing literary works dates from the late first century AD, when Martial experimented with the format. At that time the scroll was the dominant medium for literary works and would remain dominant for secular works until the fourth century….

I thought of this while perusing Jonah Lehrer’s post, The Future Of Reading, in which he makes reference to the new Stanislas Dehaene book, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. Lehrer offers up the argument that sometimes making the process of reading easier may actually result in us not making use of our full-spectrum cognitive resources. I’m skeptical of this argument, though I’d be curious as to what cognitive neuroscientists would make of it. Until then, an amusing reenactment of the travails of those who weren’t quite early adopters of the codex technology:

Image Credit: Willy Horsch, Torah Scroll


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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