In her recent article published in the ‘journal of the world publishing community’, Logos, our Course Leader Dr. Leah Tether questions whether there might be more links between medieval and digital reading cultures than first meets the eye.
Leah’s article, entitled, Mise en page, mise en écran: What medieval ‘publishing’ practices can tell us about reading in the digital age’ appears in the 2014 issue of Logos (vol. 25.1) and surveys aspects of medieval reading and textual consumption as a means of elucidating some of the trends we are increasingly seeing in the digital reading world.
For example, she considers how navigational aids in manuscripts, such as rubrics and illuminations, mirror hypertexts in terms of their function. She also explores the notion of non-sequential reading, equating the nature of medieval textual composition, which was rooted in oral storytelling and thus often experienced out of order, to the increasingly episodic and non-linear ways in which we approach texts in digital media (look at how you click on the hyperlinks contained within this article, taking you off on tangents away from the main text before you return – or don’t depending on whether you find something more interesting!)
Leah also looks at interactive reading, considering the reader’s impact and influence on the texts they read. In the Middle Ages, readers often wrote notes in the margins of texts, and these notes might be incorporated into later copies, thus influencing later reader’s interpretations.
In a digital age, we are seeing more and more annotation functionality in text-based products which encourage the social reading of texts. Indeed, Bob Stein’s taxonomy and proposal for social reading suggests that the next phase of e-reading will undoubtedly be social, and through the Institute for the Future of the Book, he has produced a platform called SocialBook aimed at making this possible.
Leah’s overall conclusion suggests that textual dynamism lies at the root of succeeding in encouraging digital reading. Just as medieval audiences were able to exercise a level of power over the texts they consumed, so must digital audience if they are to be satisfied with what is on offer. Of course, in print culture, this kind of power lay almost entirely with the author due to the static nature of the reading frame.
Audiences accepted the limitations of print in this sense because the benefits of mass literacy were not to be sniffed at. But something was lost in this enterprise; the social, interactive side of textual consumption was effectively stemmed by the unchangeability of print, where writers were so authoritative that their word could no longer be challenged within the reading frame.
Digital reading frames, though, have the ability to be updated, commented upon and amended instantaneously. In the digital world, the reader is thus regaining his place as a stakeholder of equal status to the writer – look at crowdsourcing and fanfiction: both provide the reader with a platform akin to that of the medieval reader. Publishers should therefore perhaps look to the medieval world for inspiration for where to take their digital products; as with so many trends, we seem to be coming full circle and the past could teach us a great deal about the present.
Leah’s article has already received great feedback, and she will be taking part in a workshop based on the aforementioned SocialBook platform, which will use her article as a test case, at the European Literature Days festival, taking place in Austria in October 2014.