From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

edited by Anouk Lang. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 262 pp. $28.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-155849-9539.

This book is a collection of studies on reading practices at the dawn of the twenty-first century, written by scholars from multiple disciplines. With the changes in reading habits emerging due to such various causes as reading on tablets and cell phones, other online texts, expanding literacy in developing economies and ethnic groups, it is a timely volume. Sociological and ethnographic approaches to the study of literacy make it quite clear that the general topic of literacy is acquiring new forms, raising new questions, and ranging far beyond traditional literary research traditions.

From Codex to Hypertext is divided into two parts: the first is a collection of case studies about communities of readers and how they go about reading, the second group of papers focus on new ways of studying literacy. Both are broad in scope. For example in the first part, there are discussions about the evolution of zines, consumption of literature in China, online literary communities, the role of literacy in nation building in South Africa, how African American women read fiction, role of book groups, and a case study of how book sellers affect what people read in Canada. The second part of the book discusses mapping of digital networks and reading patterns, identifies temporal problems in hypertext, presents a demonstration of ethnomethodological practices, and other discussions about how to investigate contemporary cultures.

While quite eclectic, several themes emerge across these papers. The development and consumption of reading materials is a reciprocal process affecting each other, especially with regard to online texts and activities, the latter having energized discussions about the transformative influences of particular types of media, including paper-based ones such as books. Technology, formats, and cultural events affect reading practices but in turn those practices are transformative forces as well. Contributors concern themselves with how traditional reading practices are affected by new technologies, for example. Most of the papers present evidence of hybrid practices in evidence around the world and across literate communities, almost all routed in case studies. As the second section of the book makes quite clear, the argument is made in favor of applying interdisciplinary and fresh approaches to the study of what the authors call “reception studies” (10), as these transcend traditional academic disciplines. As the book’s editor commented about the entire book, these essays discuss “how context, format, production, and circulation inflect textual interpretation” (13). The book meets that objective, and it does it with a healthy respect for the historical context that so profoundly influences what is clearly a substantial transformation underway in reading practices today.

To put this book into a historical context for students of the role of information, the study of literacy, and reading through such ephemera as books, magazines, even e-mail, zines, and other online materials is undergoing a substantial transformation. This is driven in part by the rapid and expanded use of computing, debates about the “death of the book” (about which the contributors generally think will not happen soon), and the movement of historians and others toward more global studies of human uses of information and, more specifically, expanding literacy. Scholars of the “Information Age,” and of the use of information (data too) are now engaged in discussions of literacy and reading practices far beyond what previously was the case.

This collection of essays is a useful contribution to those discussions, going beyond debates about the role of books.

James W. Cortada, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota