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Medieval Habit, Modern Sensation: Reading Manuscripts in the Digital Age
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[H]abit is an immensely powerful agent for regulating, even creating, the acuity of sentience. Just as one may regulate the amount of light by opening and closing one’s eyelids or by turning and tilting one’s head through hundreds of angles and planes, so habit acts to set in place countless gateways that either open and allow the world to rush toward one or instead close it to keep it wholly at bay.

elaine scarry1

Before the emergence of electronic reading devices like the Kindle or iPad, the practice of reading a printed book was a deeply ingrained habit that crossed boundaries dividing cultures, time periods, and places. Books were subject to local variation, of course, but they shared many features in common, including a repertoire of bodily motions and gestures related to their reading and handling. Although new habits form very quickly, digital reading lacks the near-global commonality of holding a book in the hands, feeling the sharp or subtle edges of the pages, hearing the rustle of each leaf as it is turned, smelling the scents of paper and ink, even tasting the book by touching tongue to finger and finger to page and back again. Gazing at a screen is not the same as looking at a book. The reading device itself never changes; book after book is called to the screen, but the technological object persists, its buttons and USB connections and switches forever in the same places as texts come and go. In contrast, each book has a material identity of its own. Some are large, some are small; they come in a rainbow of colors; they are heavy or light, thick or thin, glued or stitched. Unlike the reading device, the book proposes a relationship between its appearance and its content, despite the old saw about not judging a book by its cover. This relationship can be distant or close, alienated or intimate, but the book (meaning the specific physical object—cover, pages, printing, stitching) is always tied to the work it contains. With the advent of electronic reading devices, however, the work has become mobile, slipping the bonds of paper and ink to pop up on electronic readers, cell phones, and computers at the touch of a button. The sensory experience of reading is changed profoundly by this split between the medium and the work, not least because sensory cues that provided guidance about interpretation to readers have now been lost. This essay will consider a specific aspect of this change in reading by focusing on the relationship between the medieval manuscript in its original form—as a book—and in its most recent incarnation, as a digitized image that is viewed on a computer screen. The advent of the digital manuscript has resulted in both gains and losses for medievalists, which, I will suggest, are best understood by thinking about the roles played by habit and by sensation in our interactions with medieval books.

Habit is deeply connected to sensation; it is sensation that reassures the human actor that she is behaving in a habitual way. The traditional printed book provides a series of sensory cues that activate habitual behaviors, including specific marks on the pages (chapter headings, rubrics, page numbers, and the like), the weight of the book on its left and right sides (marking the reader’s progress through the work), the size and density of type, the presence or absence of images, the thickness of the paper, and so on. These cues discipline the reader’s encounter with the words on the page by communicating such information as the seriousness of the work, the genre of the text, and the level of commitment required to read it. But these marks do not simply instruct the reader; they also reflect the habits of readers in general, and thereby simultaneously discipline the literary text by subjecting it to the collective force of readerly habit. In other words, as a material object with a specific form, the book brings habit to life as a force exerted in two directions, on the reader and on the written work. As Elaine Scarry suggests, habit is intimately related to sentience itself...

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