Like Henry Petroski’s The Pencil, David Levy’s Scrolling Forward takes a common, everyday object, the document, and illuminates what it reveals about us, both in the past and in the digital age.
We are surrounded daily by documents of all kinds—letters and credit card receipts, business memos and books, television images and web pages—yet we rarely stop to reflect on their significance. Now, in this period of digital transition, our written forms as well as our reading and writing habits are being disturbed and transformed by new technologies and practices.
An expert on information and written forms, and a former researcher for the document pioneer Xerox, Levy masterfully navigates these concerns, offering reassurance while sharing his own excitement about many of the new kinds of emerging documents. He demonstrates how today’s technologies, particularly the personal computer and the World Wide Web, are having analogous effects to past inventions—such as paper, the printing press, writing implements, and typewriters—in shaping how we use documents and the forms those documents take. Scrolling Forward lets us see the continuity between the written forms of today and those of the past.
Levy's book may not give documents the same cachet that Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed the World gave to maps, but readers will never look at a deli receipt in the same way after finishing this gripping discussion of written forms. With digital media acquiring an increasingly important place in communicating news and ideas, Levy looks at what the continuing transition from print to digital means at both practical and symbolic levels. The Internet and other electronic publishing platforms now deliver information faster than at any time in history, but tend to lose the depth of the printed page, Levy argues. And while there are good reasons to receive certain types of information quickly, there are also good reasons to read an entire printed book at one's own pace. Levy, who has a Ph.D. in computer science as well as a degree in calligraphy and bookbinding, maintains that one isn't necessarily a Luddite because he or she still prefers to read information on the printed page. To help support his position, Levy devotes one chapter to explaining why he prefers reading Leaves of Grassbetween covers to reading it on an e-book. Still, digital delivery of information has its merits, and striking the right balance between print and digital works is something that needs to be worked out in the years ahead. Although Levy does not come to any striking conclusions, his assessment of how documents work and what they say about our culture and values is a worthy one.