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  • From Papyrus to Hypertext: Toward the Universal Digital Library
  • Stephen Edward Bales
From Papyrus to Hypertext: Toward the Universal Digital Library. By Christian Vandendorpe. Translated by Phylliss Aronoff and Howard Scott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. ix, 191 pp. $25.00 (paper). ISBN 978-0-252-03435-0.

From Papyrus to Hypertext: Toward the Universal Digital Library is an excellent English translation of Christian Vandendorpe's 1999 Du papyrus à l'hypertexte: Essai sur les mutations du texte et de la lecture (Paris: La Découverte); the author has updated the book to include an analysis of the post-Web 2.0 digital environment. Papyrus is an extension of the work typified by communications scholar Marshall McLuhan as well as the scholarship of other eminent "Toronto School of Communications" communications theorists, particularly the writings of Eric Havelock, Robert Logan, and Harold Innis. Technological determinism first entered the popular consciousness with McLuhan's Understanding Media, an experimental text that argues that "the medium is the message"—that communication technologies significantly affect the reception, interpretation, and transfer of information. Papyrus is a post-McLuhan materialist consideration of the impact of reading technology on culture. It argues that the "transformations that affect every aspect of our civilization" are related intimately to the edifices of reading and writing (e.g., clay tablet, scroll, book, computer file) (1).

Vandendorpe explains the material influence of technology on reading and culture in forty short essays discussing the impact on culture of everything from fifth-century B.C.E. Egyptian papyrus scrolls to blogs and Wikipedia. Each one-to five-page fragment considers how an information-bearing format determines reading and writing—how artifacts influence the production and interpretation of culture. When read serially, the essays loosely cluster into categorical themes (e.g., tabularity, elements of text, and visual information) (3). While Vandendorpe recommends that the reader proceed through the book in a sequential manner (3), the fragmented composition style allows for, in this reviewer's opinion, a successful "disordered reading," both mimicking hypertext and drawing attention to the substantial differences (and similarities) between hypertext and older reading technologies.

The concepts of "linearity" and "tabularity" are central to Vandendorpe's analysis of text (Papyrus deals primarily with the text in the form of written information). The degree of a text's linearity determines to what extent it must be read sequentially, with the volumen (the scroll) being the representative example. The scroll replicates oral narrative; it must be read from start to finish. The degree of tabularity, conversely, determines the reader's control over the act of reading through the logical circumscription of information. The codex (the book, in the traditional sense of a collection of bound pages) introduced a high degree of tabularity through formatting elements such as individual pages, page numbers, indexes, tables of contents, and running heads as well as multiple other points of entry. [End Page 377]

This invention, Vandendorpe contends, was "a radical break with [the] old order [the volumen], that brought a revolution in the reader's relationship with the text" (29). No longer was the reader bound to a narrative unfolding of the text, although he or she might certainly choose to read a text linearly. Since the reader may deviate from the "intended" reading of the work and therefore subvert the author's expected meaning, he or she is "no longer defined as someone able to grasp 'the correct meaning' but could well be someone with the ability to pass any text through a filter consciously chosen according to specific goals" (51). Reading, as a result of a revolution in artifact, became a user-oriented experience where meaning might be created instead of conveyed.

The hypertext revolution has pushed the tabular capabilities of text to its limits. Vandendorpe contends, in fact, that hypertext allows for the complete obliteration of context. While digital tabularity offers the reader near complete freedom of choice, the reader risks losing the act of reading itself; he or she is no longer reading but skimming or "poaching" (135). Conversely, hypertext has expanded the acts of reading and writing from solitary endeavors to collaborative acts of the creation of meaning, thanks to digitization giving text...


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pp. 377-378
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