how to read your papyrus scroll -- 7/21/20

Today's selection -- from The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston. The danger and ease of reading a papyrus scroll:

"With all the rolling and unrolling demanded while reading a scroll, with no page numbers to guide the reader to their desired location, and with no pages to rifile through in the first place, many book historians claim that finding information in a bookroll must have been frustrar­ing. But then, there is a suspicion among others that we are too far removed from the daily use of scrolls to be entirely sure about this. It is slower to access a particular part of a scroll, but many of the same intangible factors are at work as when flipping through a book: the visual appearance and the physical weight of the scroll's rolled-up ends guide one to the approximate location, and even without page numbers, chapter tides, and the other textual furniture found on the pages of a modern book, an unadorned column of characters does become famil­iar after a while. The act of scrolling through an electronic document is named by analogy with the ancient experience of shufiling through a bookroll, and we adapted quickly to that particular change in the reading experience.

Terentius Neo and his wife

"Whether a reader was searching for a favorite passage or reading through an unfamiliar work, 'scrolling' through a scroll demanded their full attention. It takes two hands to simultaneously unfurl a bookroll at one end and roll it up at the other; there is no way to casually prop open a scroll in one hand while sipping from a glass of wine held in the other. (I have tried.) Perhaps because of this, the oenophile Romans accessorized some of their scrolls with a pair of sticks, or umbilici, one attached to each end of a scroll to facilitate rolling and unrolling. They made furniture to match too, in the form of reading desks sporting pegs behind which a scroll's umbilici could be lodged to keep it open at a desired location. Shorter scrolls equipped with umbilici could be unrolled and their ends left to dangle off the end of a table; failing that, a pair of stones would serve well enough as paperweights. And the dangers of a springy papyrus bookroll should not be underesti­mated: in the first century CE, an aging Roman senator named Lucius Verginius Rufus died after trying to retrieve a scroll chat had sprung out of his grasp; he slipped on the marble floor, fracturing his hip, and never recovered.

"In spite of all its shortcomings­ -- its flammability, unwieldiness, and comparative fragility -- for the den­izens of ancient Greece and Rome, the papyrus scroll was the obvious choice for recording texts of any great length."



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 Keith Houston


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