The New York Times has a drop-dead fascinating article by Lev Grossman about these three forms of reading material today. (Did you know that the word “protocol” is the name of the first page of a scroll which describes where it was made?)
The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn’t be done.
God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex.
I would suggest that e-reading can be quite analogous to the codex experience — as long as appropriate navigation features, and possibly visual cues, are built into the text. I think user-interface design for e-readers and/or their software still has a way to go before this will be relaxing and transparent to the reading person. Most important, I think, and most anxiety-inducing in its absence, is the ability to… navigate *back to where one left off*.
The web can be read linearly, just as a book can be read non-linearly. A novel is designed to be read linearly, and it can be read on paper, or online, linearly as designed. Trying to suggest that web-based reading cannot be linear is just daft. It’s Luddite thinking, based on the perception of web pages designed specifically to interrupt the linear reading pattern, and assuming that all web reading must be that way.