Affordances of the Codex

The first class session in the Rare Book Room this term was for DIG 220: Electronic Literature with Dr. Mark Sample and his students.  Electronic literature?  In the Rare Book Room?  Yes, because one of the interesting things to do as we look at using/reading/researching texts online, is to compare that to how we’d use the same text in a physical space.  So, we looked at the “Affordances of the Codex,” or to put it another way, the attributes of the physical book.  What do we do differently; how do we interact differently; what do we see in a different way when we use physical books?

The five affordances we attributed to physical books were:

  • Books are simultaneously sequential and random access.

For example, we can look at a dictionary and read from A to Z, or we can find the definition of a particular word.  We can look at a book of short stories and read the first story through to the last, or we can choose a story to read.

The cover of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"

Short Stories

  • Books are volumetric objects.

They have size and shape.  They “contain” the information in a three dimensional way.  Or, the shape may be representative of the contents.  The book “Snake Poems,” by Margaret Atwood literally unfolds like an accordion or “snake.”  “Gulliver’s Travels” text of his visit to the land of the giants is huge; the text of his visit to the Lilliputians is tiny.

  • Books are finite (bounded information spaces).

Single titles may be bound in one or more volumes; multiple titles may be bound together; single titles bound in one volume may be divided into parts.

  • Books offer a comparative visual space.

Books may be printed on the “front” side (the recto) of a leaf, but not on the “back” side (the verso.)  Notes, glosses, or translations may be on pages opposite the text itself.Page in SanscritPage in English stating, "An Indian Love-Lament from the Sanskrit of the Chautapanchasike"

  • Books are writable as well as readable.

We all often take notes, underline, or mark passages in books (our own, of course, not those which we check out from the library!) for our study.  But, some books in the Rare Book Room have recipes on a flyleaf, notes from previous owners regarding their readings of the book, children’s drawings, gift inscriptions and other markings indicating their use.A text titled, "Our Own Second Reader; for the use of Schools and Families"

Some of these affordances may also apply to electronic texts, but some don’t.  How do you see them differently?

Thanks, Dr. Sample and students for a great discussion!

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