The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Reading revolutions

Here is a link to Tim’s terrific new post over at The Atlantic, provided for your convenience. Like I said on Twitter:

@tcarmody I love that your magisterial media history post totally has a Demand Media headline. Nicely done.

I love the fact that Gutenberg’s press represents just one of ten revolutions here, and I love Tim’s characterization of it:

2. Outside of scholarly circles, the top candidate is usually the better-known Print Revolution, usually associated with Johannes Gutenberg, who helped introduce movable type to Europe. Now, as Andrew Pettegree’s new history The Book in the Renaissance shows, the early years of print were much messier than advertised: no one knew quite what to do with this technology, especially how to make money off of it.

“No one knew quite what to do with this technology.” I can’t tell you much I love that—how heartening I find it. It means we probably haven’t even figured out what the web is really good for yet.

But yo, Tim, I’ve got beef: where’s the paperback revolution in your list?


It’s part of the industrial revolution, silly. I even mention paperbacks.

Right of course. I was just… testing you.

Compared to the Top 10, paperbacks are small. Even ebooks are small. That’s what I’d contend, anyways.

(But ONLY compared to the top 10)

Bravo, Tim. I added a small piece of additional evidence at the Atlantic:

“An echo of Tim’s point about the codex and other early iterations of the book can be heard in this: books from about the first half-century after Gutenberg are known to collectors today as incunabula — taken from the Latin for ‘swaddling clothes,’ indicative of a technology in its infancy.”

This is interesting, but it’s also very Western-centric. I know zilch about the development of literacy in China or other parts of Asia, but given all the modern chatter about Japanese commuters reading books on cellphones, there ought to be something worth investigating there.

This is absolutely true. I tried to indicate that a little bit by pointing out that Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe, that Hebrew and Arabic are revolutionary scripts.

I very quickly glossed over cloth paper, which was invented in China, perfected in the Arab world, then took off with print in Europe. But I was worried that nobody would want to hear me blather on about paper. I’d totally do it.

I cut out a whole section about vertical reading in Chinese & Japanese, and early psychological investigations into reading (Stanislas Dehaene and Nick Carr didn’t kick down that door, you know.)

(Hmm — supplementary post: reading/writing revolutions in Asia and the Americas. Snarkproject!)

Awesome, I support these follow-up post ideas. And I think paper is interesting, but that may be a factor of having too many craft hobbies.

Dan says…

At MSU, #1 on my list of ambitions was: get published in the Atlantic. I know: that’s a kinda sorry #1. But I’m so psyched to know (in the flesh) an Atlantic writer (.com or not).

Tim Carmody says…

Let me just add, too, that I don’t even know if these would be my actual Top 10 reading revolutions, even in the West. I haven’t even thought it out that far. These are just the top ten things that scholars & historians have talked about as being reading revolutions.

This raises the question: which revolutions are genuinely missing here? Paperbacks, linotype, maybe one of the bigger categories covers those. What isn’t even conceived of in this list? What’s the next Innis- or Benjamin-like constellation to be found in the data?

A friend who studies lit once mentioned to me the idea that there are different sorts of readers: people who read for pleasure, for edification, and so on, and thus what we choose to read isn’t just an issue of personal taste, but also its function. (Possibly something we’re usually blind to, assuming that our own motivations for reading match everyone else’s.) I’d be interested in how that has changed over time, the function of reading as different types of texts and formats have become available.

Along those lines, I really liked Tim’s explication of “intensive” vs. “extensive” reading — a world where you read ten books over and over vs. a world where you read a thousand books once. What are some other flavors? And perhaps some new flavors: a world where you don’t read ANY book completely, but rather bits & pieces of a hundred thousand books?

Tim Carmody says…

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the computational boomerang. (I don’t know if that’s a real thing, but that’s what I’m calling it right now.) It goes like this:

1. As computer languages got more and more complex, they got farther from pure mechanical instructions and closer to human-readable semantic languages.

2. So now we’ve got all this text that’s designed to be read ONLY by computers. And it’s real text. Not like, “oh, it’s a kind of sign system that’s similar to our text, in a family-resemblance kind of way.” If anything, it’s more structurally sophisticated and (definitely) more precise than our natural languages.

3. But, in what turns out to be a new iteration of the literacy revolution, more and more people can actually sight-read this text designed to be read by a computer. We can actually make jokes with each other using hashtags and phony HTML tags and UNIX commands.

That is special. That is like climbing up on the mountains or getting into an airplane and photographing the Nazca lines — signs only the gods were supposed to see. And it’s all the more special because it’s so ordinary.

I’ve seen comparisons with programming-language literacy and human-language literacy elsewhere, too. There’s some interesting things to poke at there: overlap in the “language affects how you think” (or construct problems) zone, and the way choosing ease-of-readability or allowing multiple ways of phrasing the same thing becomes a kind of cultural value.

Unfortunately, actual literacy in writing code is a less common skill than I wish. I think everyone would benefit from more people knowing how to write software. (Code is not that hard. Really! Except when it is, but that happens with words too.)

If it were anyone else, I’d be prompted to find some sort of label for the recent spate of wonderful intellectual outbursts from our dear Tim. (I was an early fan of Tim’s work, since well before the time he was creating the Bookfuturist Cycle.) But I’ve seen enough of his writing and thinking over enough years to understand that it’s just Tim, unshackled. Quite nice.

In this post, I especially like how Tim stuffed his dissertation into a throwaway sentence: “Let’s just say that what the things we read are made out of has always been very, very important.” That was a nice touch. Such depth this man has.

On reflection, here’s the actual sentence wherein Tim summarizes his dissertation: “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.”

Matt P says…

I think another potential revolution (or at least evolution) worth tracing is the audibility of text. Starting from the medieval custom of reading aloud, moving to modern silent reading, to the spread of the audiobook and automated text-to-speech, we’ve seen vast changes in the way reading and hearing are linked or divorced.

Another overlooked candidate for a revolution: punctuation! Thank the copyists of the Christian bible and Aldus Manutius if you’ve ever used an initial capital, a semicolon, a comma, period, or parenthesis.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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