Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Return of the Scroll/Museum of Marco Polo

3rd August 2014

You remember the town criers in Rome and the scrolls that they read from?

I am playing around on the iPad and wondering if we are seeing the return of the ancient scroll?

The scroll preceded the book and for a thousand years or so was the only way to get your story written down.  You wrote in the shape of pages but then stuck these pages together and unrolled them sideways so that one page followed on from the next.

But then the codex was invented – an early form of the book – and it trounced the scroll for sheer practicality (easier to carry, easier to store, easier to read and to remember your place) and so consigned the scroll to history.  Until, that is, the coming of smart phones and tablets, with their lovely, horizontal, swiping movement, all of which may be encouraging the return of the ancient scroll?

But coming back with a difference.  Because paper scrolls are relatively clunky – hence the codex trounced them – whereas the digital swipe is smooth to the point of inevitability.  Stories told on tablets have an obvious affordance for going downwards or sideways – how could they resist it? – affordance being (with apologies to you who’ve known this for ever) the latent but intrinsic possibilities in a technology.

So what does this mean?  Well maybe that pages will be consigned to history.

Pages are interesting.  Pages give you borders and edges.  They also give you measurement. (‘How much shall I write?’ you ask.  ‘Just one side of A4,’ they answer.) And so you write, in paragraphs and chapters, but always mindful of the edges of the paper that are invisibly structuring your story.  Likewise when you read, your brain slows to the turning of the paper pages and compels you to take the story in in page-sized chunks.

But now perhaps the notional edges of the electronic page will start to melt away, unable to keep up with the smooth, swiping, finger gestures – as well as that ability to pinch the glass to shrink the image or spread the fingers to grow it. Already the bottom of the page has become a meaningless concept. And now, with so much horizontal fluidity,  I think the reader will be less inclined to go all the way to the bottom of the screen before starting again at the top and instead will let their eyes leap forward to take in entire landscapes.  Meanwhile the image on the screen will seem so beautiful, so luminous and so like a stained-glass window that the old novel-form (all words, no pictures) may die out, to be overtaken by stories told in words and pictures, even for grown-ups; stories that don’t unfold in a column of thought but spread sideways like a map.

So could you tell a story, or unfold an idea, by depicting it like a landscape, not one thing after another but everything at once? I don’t know but you could try.  The Chinese developed a way of telling a story across a landscape, by unfolding the scroll sideways and letting you, the reader, mentally travel across that landscape – so creating a story that is less like blocks of words and more like an illustrated map.

It’s too soon to know of course if any of this will happen – digital books are still being presented to us in the form of pages – but that’s only because of the timelag between an invention and its consequences – because the technology has not yet had a chance to impose its shape on the story.

And can I prove any of this?  That ancient Greek storytelling was different because they had the scroll and not the book, and that our storytelling will change as we move from the book to the tablet and the sideways swipe?  Of course I can’t, but I can say that it feels likely.

By Rachel Morris