Writing Without Spaces

I’ve been reading The Shallows, a book by Nicolas Carr in which he argues that the Internet and devices which provide access to it are essentially rewiring the way we think. What we’ve discovered in the last few decades is that the brain is very malleable and responsive to changes in how we interact with our environment. Carr backstops the discussion with a sketch of the historical development of writing and reading, and cites analysis of the effect on how people think and looks forward to current effects on culture. Carr is looking forward and I’ve found his argument compelling. But what he highlights also has implications for how we engage with ancient authors.

The interaction with text was very different in the ancient world. There were no “books” in the classical world as we think of them. The codex (a stack of pages in a binding) was an invention of the early first millennium. Documents of any length would be recorded on scrolls and early writing was treated by scribes like the oratory they heard. It did not have spaces and there were no rules for word order. Meaning was transmitted through inflection as the text was generally read aloud. Silent reading was apparently rare as reading in this environment would require enormous concentration. The use of text was inherently different as Carr notes:

“The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition.*”

But when scribes began to insert spaces and impose rules of word order, the amount of mental labor required to read was significantly reduced, which facilitated development of the reader’s ability to concentrate and engage more difficult material. This led in turn to the development of the ability to think in a more linear fashion. Carr’s argument for the modern world, is that the Internet is changing how we interact with text and media in ways that appear to interfere with ability to concentrate, and with the linear thought that changes in writing made possible.

Looking back at the history of literacy and books suggests an additional point. Some caution is in order in the interpretation of ancient texts. Some of the fine-grained theological distinctions that Christians argue over might simply be artifacts of linear thinking, which was fostered by the development of easily read books. Nobody in the ancient world sat up late at night reading their scrolls by the flickering light of candles and smoking oil lamps.

The way we think differs radically from how Biblical authors engaged with the texts they wrote. Centuries of argument on a wide range of topics from scholastic disputes during the Middle Ages, to modern denominational divisions over baptism and predestination might lack even the possibility of resolution. The points made in these debates probably never existed in the minds of the original authors.

*Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN: 9780393079364. 2011 Kindle edition p. 63.