In “Bookrolls as Media,” Johnson first explains the physical characteristics of a bookroll: a scroll of papyrus, with black ink, and the uniform characters that made up the text. He talks about the difficulties of reading and studying bookrolls, and how the difficulty of use encouraged deep studying and community interaction over these devices. Finally, Johnson explains how these bookrolls (the difficulty of use, the communities they formed) are indicative of the socioeconomic status of their ancient readers.
The difficulty of producing and using bookrolls illustrates how these were elite products, not merely for academic study, but for proclaiming social status. This is clear based on the types of texts reproduced as well as the highly formulaic and stylized, though extremely impractical, characteristics of the written form—Johnson describes the bookrolls as more of an art form than anything, “designed to signal a high-status, educated, cultured register” (p. 8).
The signaling of one’s status was also inherent in the study and act of reading: reading, in ancient times, was more of a performance than a solitary endeavor. Johnson takes passages from Gellius in which Gellius mocks a supposedly educated man for being “laughable in [his] reading,” after first challenging the other to a sort of reading showdown in a public space (p. 10). Reading texts without punctuation, in which the writer (and subsequent transcribers) made no attempt at a reader-friendly text, required high levels of education and long hours of study. Reading aloud required prior study of a text, so that one would know where to insert separate clauses, line breaks, and emphasis. The amount of time necessary to being a good reader was only available to the elite, and group reading sessions served as a social affirmation of status.
Reading, then, was a closed community, which perpetuated not only class but moral distinctions as well. As reading communities (“literary” reading, that is) was a typically male endeavor, the status of being well-read came to signify a certain moralistic quality of a man. Reading was a higher order pleasure than those of the masses, a “pleasure that only the educated can share” (p. 13).The fears of the church on the uses of “leisure time after nightfall” meant that reading served as a counterpoint to more “depraved” activities, like “drinking, whoring, [and] gambling” (p. 18).
The Roman adoption of less punctuation after their conquest of the Greeks was one aspect of the article I found confusing. The cultural reciprocity of the relationship between the conquerors and the conquered was unexpected; Johnson describes the aftermath of the takeover as “Greek intellectuals flooded into Rome,” (p. 8) as if Greece intellectually conquered Rome, even though physically it was the other way around.
On a related note, how were lectors, the slaves who read and took notes for the elite, chosen? It seems like a higher status position for a slave than, say, a house cleaner or field worker, so were the slaves born into higher status (say, the bastard children of their masters) or were they chosen by some other means?
What I keep returning to in the article, though, is Johnson’s discussion of the emphasis on reader/author relationships. The reading communities of the elite chosen how to interpret even the “phrasing of a sentence…whether a sentence was a question” (9), chose which texts were “literary” through discussion, an unprecedented amount of authority of a text when compared to our own. When did the shift in authority from the reader to the author occur? Who are our “cultural gatekeepers” (18)? Is it still the university, where decisions about the “literariness” of a text are made, or book critics, or publishers? Or does the concept of reciprocity apply here, that culture-begets-technology-begets-culture idea, so our cultural norms and practices themselves dictate what authors write, and the reading of these texts then enforces those same cultural norms? If so, how do we change it?