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Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere

TitreReading on Screen: The New Media Sphere
Type de publicationChapitre de livre
Année de publication2008
AuteursVandendorpe, C.
Titre du livreA companion to digital literary study
Mots-cléslecture à l'écran, lecture numérique

Far from being "natural," reading is a complex skill that is highly dependent not only on the way it has been learned, but also on the nature of the text to be read and the media on which the text is written. Even if it is not within the scope of this chapter to do a history of reading (Manguel 1996; Vandendorpe in print), it is necessary to highlight the main points of its evolution in the western world if we want to grasp the new context created by the advent of the computer and the internet.

The history of reading is closely related to the history of the book. In a nutshell, one might say that it is characterized overall by the evolution of the document from a linear and uniform flow of text to a tabular organization. In Rome, two thousand years ago, silent reading was unknown and people read out loud; or, if they were affluent enough, they listened to their slaves reading to them. Since then, reading has evolved from that "hearsay" model into the complex semiotic interaction of a variety of verbal and visual clues we know today.

The most important milestone in the history of the book was the adoption of the codex format — a Latin word meaning booklet— and the subsequent demise of the volumen or scroll. That revolution took place in Rome in the first century ad. The Christians were the first to adopt the codex, for a variety of reasons: the codex was cheaper than the scroll because the sheets could be written on both sides; it was also more compact and easier to conceal, an important feature for members of a forbidden religion who traveled a lot, and so this new medium was best adapted to a new religion preaching a revolutionary gospel. As the ascent of the codex followed that of the new religion, the new format of the book became progressively more common. It was dominant in Rome by the end of the fourth century ad, when the new religion was recognized as the official religion of the empire.

The passage from scroll to codex allowed important changes in the way texts were read. First, it freed the hands of the reader. The scroll was necessarily held with both hands; it was unrolled horizontally, and the readers might need to control the proper reenrolling of the scroll with their chin. The codex also made it easier to refer to a given portion of text. It gave more visibility to the content of the book and allowed artists to illuminate sacred manuscripts in order to foster a reverential attitude among believers. More importantly, various incremental improvements across the centuries would make the text easier to read: adoption of a minuscule script around 800, introduction of spaces between words (Saenger 1997), and of embryonic forms of punctuation (Parkes 1993), for example. Those developments would make silent reading easier to achieve and therefore fairly common in the monasteries' scriptoria of the twelfth century.

After the invention of the printing press, the book progressively gained its most modern features: page numbering, delineated paragraphs, secondary titles and tables, titles of chapters, etc. All these improvements made it easier for readers to control their reading activity, to retrieve a particular passage of a text and to share it with others. The book thus became ideally suited as a vehicle for the revolution in knowledge that characterized the Renaissance and ushered in the modern era.

According to the history of reading (Engelsing 1974), another important change in the habits of reading would occur in the eighteenth century. Until then, the book was thought of as an entity whose content a serious reader should assimilate through sessions of intensive reading, digesting and ruminating until it became part of him or her. With the multiplication of books and of all forms of printed material, a new attitude toward text called "extensive reading" would gain legitimacy. In place of percolating intensively a few books, the reader could choose to browse through vast amounts of material and content by reading only passages of particular interest. This attitude would foster the production of big encyclopedias like Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728) and the Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie in 33 volumes (1751–72).

Over the centuries, reading thus became a distinct cognitive experience autonomous from the spoken word. As a distinct media, the specificity of the printed text is that it allows readers to understand verbal content at their own pace.

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