Lev Grossman discusses inheritable libraries, the similarities between print books and wifi, and the pleasures of the codex in this video.
The thing is, I have a large physical library, as well as an ereader, but I still get the majority of my books from the library, which I “lose” once I return them. It is no longer part of my codex, except as part of my Goodreads list. But libraries, which have been around for ages, have not encountered this kind of backlash, even though they present the PRECISE same problem as Lev Grossman would see it.
First off: I am very sympathetic to Grossman’s larger point: the phenomenological and epistemological significance of the shift from scroll to codex. Essentially, Grossman give a lazy gloss of Roger Chartier’s history of the book. For those who are interested, pick up one of Chartier’s shorter volumes translated into English. “The Order of Books” and “Forms and Meanings” are good places to start.
THAT SAID: when it comes to reading the novel, Grossman gets his history laughably wrong.
What was the first novel? That question is vigorously debated by literary historians, but there are two general camps. The first camps say that the vulgar (i.e. Romance language, not Latin) chivalrous romances are the first novels (Amadis de Gaula, for example). Other say the first modern novel is Cervantes’ Don Quijote. Either way, we are talking about post-print, post-Gutenberg narratives.
The novel required two things in order to come into being: 1) mass distribution of texts; 2) mass literacy. In order to have novels, people needed to be able to get their hands on the books and be able to read them. Both mass literacy and mass distribution of texts are post-Gutenberg phenomena in Europe. Before the widespread availability of printed material, there was no need for literacy beyond the Church and the Court. After all, what is the point of learning to read if the only reading material is kept hidden away in the local monastery under lock and key? It is only AFTER Gutenberg’s technological innovation that something like a “reading public” even come into existence.
Furthermore, the novel form as we know it was not perfected in the codex medium. The great European novels of the nineteenth century were in fact serialized, i.e. published in installments–like comic books today–in newspapers. I repeat: newspapers, not codex. Charles Dickens is only the most popular and well-known example.
All this to say: the shift from codex to e-reader is indeed significant, but any attempt to connect the codex to the novel is historically misinformed. Grossman needs to get his history straight.
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