William Johnson, “Bookrolls as Media”

Johnson discusses the bookroll, a writing technology that both shaped and was shaped by the fourth and fifth century B.C. societies in which it was used. This medium was used to distinguish the elite class from members of lower classes, and it served as an influential symbol in Greek and Roman cultures.

The bookroll symbolized education and knowledge. Since writers did not include punctuation or spaces, readers had to know how to interpret the text and moreover, they had to do so without images. This medium focused solely on the written text, which made the language more difficult to comprehend. Those who were not only able to read what was written on the bookroll but also learn from it separated themselves from other members of society who could not (or did not) access this writing technology.

In this way, the bookroll also functioned as a divider between social classes. It established hierarchies—those who could read the bookrolls belonged to the educated or elite class. Johnson explains how this writing technology was “designed to signal a high-status, educated, cultured register” (108). Education meant authority, and the bookroll symbolized them both.   It was developed and used to benefit these upper classes. As a cultural symbol, this technology was used as a hobby, despite how difficult the texts were to read. Johnson writes, “Literary texts, in short, embody a sort of pleasure that only the educated can share” (113). A contemporary bookroll would be a book we pick up and read today. We don’t usually think about how we use these texts to our advantage, to educate ourselves more than others. Though we also might not intend to use them for this purpose, we still use this type of technology in a way that inevitably separates us from those who are unable to read or access books. Johnson explains how the bookroll worked like this too, so that it was at the center of both community building and community dividing.

Reading communities, which were centered on this technology, are analogous to what we might see as an influential social networking hub today. Just as the bookroll served as a symbol of education and knowledge, it also acted as a key to fit in with the privileged class. It built communities and brought people together. Johnson writes, “At stake were personal relationships, political ties, status within the community, and even concrete gains such as income and wealth” (119). There was the medium, the original writer, the readers—all within the society. Even the reading events themselves established communities.

I wonder what Johnson means when he talks about the bookroll as just one part of the entire system of Greek and Roman communities. He counters Marshall McLuhan’s stance on the medium being the message when writing, “the textual medium is, as I have argued, one component in a complex system of reading and writing behaviors that itself is deeply embedded in social as well as cultural concerns and activities” (119). I think here he is referring to texts today too, not just classical technologies like the bookroll. However, to what other mediums is he referring? What are the other “behaviors” that shape sociocultural systems?

An additional question, though a technical one: who exactly designed the bookroll? I wonder if the hierarchical system of educated/uneducated and elite/lower classes came first, where the educated wrote on the bookrolls, or did the medium itself establish the social classes? Both of these points concern my understanding of just how much influence the bookroll had in society, when there were many symbols associated with reading and writing that aided in shaping a particular community.

I think Johnson makes an interesting point when he mentions how in schools today, teachers create similar “reading communities,” where otherwise uninteresting texts like Plato’s Republic are suddenly very engaging (120-1). Students may be engaged with these texts because they believe that texts like Republic are what one needs to know in order to be educated. What does this mean for the effects of classical texts on future students? Are we (as teachers) continuing the cycle of designing and allowing the technology to separate some, while bringing others together in communities?