Vandendorpe Reads

Christian Vandendorpe’s “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere” located here starts off with a brief history of, not just books, but reading in general, showing how it evolved over time from oral reading to silent reading, just as “books” evolved from the scroll to bound volumes. As is well known, the most definitive milestone in the history of the book was the invention of the codex, and Vandendorpe gives a brief overview of its history, as well as its influence on how we read. No longer did scholars have to search through a lengthy scroll, now, they could look up what they wanted in the codex and find it easily. From a Digital Native’s perspective, it could be seen as the first Ctrl+F of its time.

Not only did it help in finding keys segments, Vandendorpe also attributes it to the rise of illustrated text. No longer were writings simply that; writing on paper. Now, there was so much intertextuality within writing, deeper meanings behind what we saw and read. Over the centuries with developments in printing increased, silent reading became the most prominent form, moving away from the traditional oral reading that had been practiced prior. It also moved to the social sphere with the invention of the printing press, as Vandendorpe mentions “the book thus became ideally suited as a vehicle for the revolution in knowledge that characterized the Renaissance and ushered in the modern era.”

As books changed, how we read them changed, and Vandendorpe concludes his introduction with this note; “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.”

Vandendorpe continues looking at the movement of writing, looking at it digitally. With the invention of the computer, text became more fluid and easy to produce, with added bonuses such as auto-correct and easy distribution. However, Vandendorpe mentions that the digital texts did not pose a rivalry for their printed cousins until the mid-90’s, some 10 years after the advent of the PC. As he put it “the internet solved elegantly and definitively the old problem of the portability of documents.” As the codex took the place of the scroll due to its portability and ease of use, so digital texts have the same benefits over their printed brethren, according to Vandendorpe. He then goes on to talk about Heyer’s modes of reading; grazing, browsing, and hunting, and applying them to these new digital texts. However, only the browsing mode is widely used with regards to digital texts, claims Vandendorpe, as “many people prefer the conviviality of the book or even photocopies when they have long documents to read attentively.”

Vandendorpe then goes on to look at issues of legibility and the flow of text with regards to digital texts. Legibility is, as Vandendorpe summarizes, a “thorny issue”, within the digital realm, as there are countless different fonts, colours and sizes available. This legibility issue, Vandendorpe claims, is one of the reasons why computer texts were discarded for printed out copies. However, with regards to the flow of text, Vandendorpe sees many issues as well. Scrollbars, mouse’s and links tend to make it hard to read, according to Vandendorpe. However, with such things as PDF.’s these problems lessen. As we find out our short comings with regards to digital texts, it seems we adapt.

This leads Vandendorpe onto hypertexts, showing how it changed reading text into a somewhat interactive search. Like the codex before it, hypertext opens up new ways of reading that were previously inaccessible, as a reader only reads what is in a volume and then has to go on to another. Hypertexts are able to link you from one topic to a similar one within seconds. As Vandendorpe puts it “Hypertext has..made possible easy access to a wealth of data that exceeds humanists’ wildest dreams since the great vision that gave birth to the library of Alexandria in 300 BC.” However, as Vandendorpe goes on to mention, hypertext makes it harder for displaying text on a screen.  Vandendorpe summarizes that we need the fluidity of hypertext with the imperatives of a visual layout and the characteristics of the reading process desired, in order to read something both in a logical sense (not all hypertexts, but actual paragraphs) and in a visual sense (not all paragraphs, but with hyperlinks for tangent topics).

This brings Vandendorpe to the concluding sections of his article, that on the birth of the E-book and the future for reading. He states the short-comings and achievements of E-books, but concludes on the topic that the perfect E-book is still not available: “the perfect e-book should..allow the user to manipulate documents as with Adobe Acrobat: highlighting, selecting, copying, commenting, and exchanging. The arrival of hypertext has opened doors that today’s readers already appreciate too much to give them up.”

He concludes his article by stating that, though he cannot see the future of reading, “history has shown..a medium as widely used as the scroll could be completely replaced by the codex or book format in the course of three centuries.” With the digitization of many volumes, Vandendorpe concludes that, though we aren’t ready to give up on printed books yet, “the foreseeable future of the book could well be in an electronic re-creation of the original scroll format, a development that would make digital reading as “natural” as reading a codex is today.”


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