Monday, November 28, 2011

The Scroll and the Codex

The original form of book wasn't of the kind that you see in bookshops, the kind you array in your bookcases. It was a scroll, written on one side, unrolled from a spindle and rolled onto another spindle in order to read The printed book as we know it is called a codex, developed by the Romans, and made of material written on both sides, folded, and stitched or glued together. The invention of the codex has been regarded as the most important technological innovation in reading before the introduction of printing.

The novelist and journalist Lev Grossman has written, recently, of the great virtues of the codex as compared with the scroll. One can easily jump to any point in the text, for instance to re-read a passage that one read half an hour ago. Although one religion of the book, Judaism, still sticks with the scroll, it is said that among reasons for the success of another religion, Christianity, was that they early went over to the codex.

Grossman's argument, for instance in the New York Times Book Review, is that with the e-book one is regressing to an earlier form of technology, less conducive to reading. With an e-book one doesn't—despite what the interface has you doing with your finger to get to the next part—turn the pages: one scrolls.

By contrast, the codex allows a deep reader to to navigate
the network of internal connections that exist within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed the codex isn't just another format; it's the one for which the novel is optimized (p. 13).
One can pick up a novel one is reading, where one has turned a corner of the page as a bookmark, flip back to the start of the chapter to reorient oneself, glance at the introduction, or at an endnote, see how far one is from the end of the book. Such actions are not easy with the scroll. Like all good technologies the codex gave people access to new abilities. As compared with scrolls, or with movies, the codex enables the reader to progress at a pace, and in an order, that he or she chooses.

I heard Grossman talk, earlier this summer, at the Toronto Book Summit, and there he said that his father was beginning to suffer from dementia, but that his library was still intact. Lev could go in there, see the codex books arrayed on the shelves, pick one out and look at it's cover, and get the sense that here in this room was an externalized aspect of his father's mind.

Though the e-book is good for traveling, do we really want to give up the printed codex?

Lev Grossman (2011) From scroll to screen. New York Times Book Review Section, p. 13, 4 September. 

Image: Corner of my library.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Research Bulletin: Fiction and Helping

We at OnFiction have talked quite a bit about how reading fiction might help to foster empathy. The mental processes used to understand a story character, to take that character’s perspective and see the world through his or her eyes, seem similar to what we use to understand our real-world peers. More than just understanding others, fiction seems exceptionally well-suited to foster an empathic response, given its often emotional context. Our previous work has examined this hypothesis from various research perspectives and in different populations. Recently, Dr. Dan Johnson (Washington and Lee University) has extended this work to see whether the empathic responses promoted by fiction might translate to prosocial behavior, or the helping of others. In his study, participants read a short-story specifically designed to induce compassion and provide a model for prosocial behavior. Soon after reading, an experimenter “accidentally” dropped six pens. The key measurement was whether the participant helped the experimenter to pick up the pens. Higher levels of engagement with the story and higher levels of emotional empathy after reading predicted whether people were more likely to help the experimenter. In a second study, Dr. Johnson replicated this finding, increasing confidence in this effect. This is an intriguing study in that it demonstrates that short-term increases in empathy as a result of reading can result in actual prosocial behavior.

Johnson, D. R. (in press). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences.

* In what is becoming a disturbing trend, I must apologize for the lateness of this posting. As always, I am happy to provide a copy of the original article upon request (see profile for e-mail).

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Between Words

I don’t love you, nor you me,
Yet when within each other’s reach,
Whispers of eternity,
Slow the clocks and hush the din,
Make our words like senseless leaves,
Falling awe-struck from a tree.

No matter that the meanings flee,
News-stained words, the passing themes,
It is our silences I seek,
Sweeter than the sweetest lips.

I don’t love you, for love is,
Misshapen word, disrobed by fears,
Its power waning, its light dimmed,
With each untruth, so kindly meant.

And if it happens that it must be,
For words to lose to their fragrances,
Watch me lose, I’ll lose gladly,
To win our silences between.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Quick Hit: 2012 IGEL Conference in Montreal

The academic society with aims that are closest to those of OnFiction is the International Society for Empirical Research on Literature (click here). The society was founded in 1987, and it's usually known as IGEL, which is the acronym for the Society's name in German. It holds conferences every two years, usually alternating between Europe and North America. The next conference is in Montreal, Canada, between 7 and 10 July 2012. Recently the Society started its own journal, Scientific Study of Literature. If you are a researcher, please consider joining the Society, coming to the next conference, and contributing to the journal.
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Monday, November 7, 2011

World Literature

On 4 October 2011, Martin Puchner came to give an endowed lecture at University College, University of Toronto, entitled "World literature and the creation of literary worlds." Puchner is an editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature which, he says, has grown from 400 pages to 6000. He said that no literature is early enough, or far flung enough, not to be included. He also said that, of course, the task of including something of everything is impossible, and then went on to say that perhaps the unfinishedness of the enterprise is one of its strengths.

Puchner talked about how he had started to think of world literature in terms of the themes presented and re-presented in the stories of the world, from The epic of Gilgamesh to the novels of J.M. Coetzee. One of the themes that recurs worldwide is creation: how our world came into being. He said that his favorite creation story is by the Maya, in Popol Vuh. Of the creation stories I have read, it's my favorite too. In it the gods attempt to create human beings: one try was to make them from earth and mud, but this didn't work because they soaked up water when it rained, and dissolved. It took the gods four goes before they managed to create us, beings who could talk and converse. The reason I like this story is that the gods have to learn from their mistakes, and this leaves the sense that they may not, still, have got it quite right, so that it may be up to us humans to create better versions of ourselves and of our human world. Compare that with the idea of a god who is omnipotent and omniscient which leaves me, at least, wondering whether some streak of malice was involved in creating a world so filled with suffering, while all the time such a god remains a know-all who seems insensible to the possibility that things might have been, or might still be, better.

Puchner's idea in this talk wasn't that different national literatures start with creation and then move on to something else, but that literature is about the creation of worlds. He says the creation myths have oriented him to thinking that all literature depicts the creation of worlds. Every time we read a story we readers witness this, right there, from the page. Sometimes this is made explicit, as in the eighteenth century Chinese novel, Story of the Stone, in which Jia Bao-you visits the Land of Illusion in a dream, or when Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, goes down a rabbit hole. Sometimes it's less explicit.

Puchner enlarged on his theme with three issues. One was the status of worlds created in literature; for instance, in Italo Calvino's Imaginary cities. In this story, the idea that these are cities of the imagination is never hidden, and carries with it the idea that all literature that involves travel is indeed about the imagination. Puchner added here that, as well as the idea that art imitates life, literary art is itself a creation: poesis. The second issue was that literary worlds are not only worlds-in-themselves but that they can embrace the entire cosmos, as in Olaf Stapledon's novel, The star maker, in which the narrator falls asleep and finds himself moving through the air, and then through the universe, able to steer and encounter alternative life forms, with which he can communicate telepathically. Puchner's third issue was the idea of models, so that literary worlds can offer us simplifications, model worlds that enable us to understand our own world better. Here he gave the example of Edwin Abbott's novel, Flatland, about a world which, instead of having three dimensions, has only two. With such themes, as Puchner pointed out, we can contemplate the creation, and destruction, not just of literary worlds, but of our day-to-day world.

As an author/editor of OnFiction, I have to say, I rather liked this approach from a literary direction, because of its parallels with the idea, which comes from a psychological direction, that fiction is a kind of simulation, a model of the social world that we enter in our imagination (click here).

Image: One of John Tenniel's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.
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Friday, November 4, 2011

Quick Hit: In the Minds of Others

For those of you who like print magazines, the November/December 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind, on the book-stands now, has an article about our research. The article is entitled "In the Minds of Others." In it, I show how the results of our research group (Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic, and me, with some other associates) indicate that reading fiction isn't as solitary as it seems. It's social interaction with people of the mind. It has psychological effects, which include understanding people better and enabling us to change ourselves. 
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