back to the codex


Although what most of us now think of as “the book”—the codex form made up of pages bound to a spine—began to spread not long after Socrates, it took more than six hundred years for it, rather than the scroll, to lead Western readers where they pleased. This technological triumph is usually explained in terms of the codex’s greater efficiency. But such accounts have to assume that pagans, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, all of whom advanced quite happily without the codex, had no interest in efficiency, even though the last three were centuries ahead of the West in the development of the impressive efficiency of print. In fact, the codex is more likely to have spread among the new Christians of the West, and later the Islamists, not for its efficiency in delivering text, but for its ability to signify that its holder was bound for a new religion, not still enrolled in the old. (It should not be surprising, then, that enthusiastic readers of e-books sometimes resemble new sectarians.) Both Andrew Piper in Book Was There and Leah Price in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain look back to the rise of the codex, noting its symbolic and practical contribution to the conversion of Augustine of Hippo.

more from Paul Duguid at Threepenny Review here.