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Reading War and Peace on my iPhone

by Clive Thompson

*****

This is the story about how I read War and Peace on my iPhone.

According to some scholars and pundits, I probably shouldn’t have done this. These days, critics of digital reading worry that serious literature sort of can’t be adequately read on high-tech devices. Screens, they fear, are inherently inferior to print. Phones are twitchy hives of activity, speeding us up and yanking us in all directions. Paper books, in contrast, calm us and slow us down. In her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, the linguist Naomi Baron surveyed the research and concluded that digital screens are pretty lousy environments for deep, immersive reading. There are plenty of studies backing her up. When scientists test these things, they find that people who read a text onscreen remember less of it than people who read it on paper. The books don’t seem to lodge in our souls as well.

Why? No one entirely knows. Some of it may simply be due to eyestrain ergonomics: Laptops require you to lean in for a long time to read a book, mobile-phone are shiny mirrors, and even a high-rez Kindle Paperwhite — which I own — feels somehow squintier that the stark contrast of dark ink on paper. It may also be, as the scholar Anne Mangen has found in her work, that our minds are slightly befuddled by navigating ebooks. When you can’t as easily flip through a text, you feel more at sea.

And then, of course, there are the distractions. With Snapchat and Facebook pecking at you like ravenous ducks, one could scarcely imagine a tool more exquisitely tuned to destroy deep attention than a modern phone. Baron found that 85% of young people reported multitasking while reading on a digital device, while only 26% did so with a paper book. “I don’t absorb as much,” complained one. “Reading [on] paper is active — I’m engaged and thinking, reacting, marking up the page,” said another. “Reading the screen feels passive to me.” This is why print books aren’t dying off. Studies by the Pew Research Center suggest that book readers read paper much more often than digital, and these days, the number of independent bookstores is actually growing.

Still, it makes you wonder about the future. I’m generally a giddy optimist about digital technologies; I think they’ve given us delightful new ways to make sense of the world and talk to each other. But I’m also an old-school fan of book reading. If you assume, as Baron does, that in the decades to come books will migrate more and more to screens — screens that more suited to skimming and tweet-authoring than intensive reading — then what does this mean for fate of the really big books? Will our flighty brains ever get as much out of phone screens as paper? Are the great works of literature doomed to fade away like ghosts?

I wanted to find out. So I did an experiment. I pulled out my iPhone and downloaded the hugest, weightiest tome I could think of.

War and Peace.

*****

These days, Tolstoy’s phone-book-sized epic is often invoked as a sort of intellectual Turing Test for deep reading: Make it to the end, and you get your Deep Literary Concentration Prize! You’re a cultured individual! This is precisely why it’s regarded as something faintly berserk to read on a phone. “There are probably people who have read War and Peace on their smartphones,” wrote the New York Times columnist Bob Tedeshi, “but just the thought of spending that much time squinting at a little screen makes my eyes hurt.”

The truth is, for years I read very few big novels. Indeed, I’m a weirdo who reads mostly poetry and nonfiction. I studied English at the University of Toronto back in the 80s and early 90s, where I discovered I really loved the compression of poems — the way poets wield metaphor like a blunt-force instrument, diving right into the deep end of their métier, with little of the scene-setting and dithering of prose. I heavily dug the rangy, D&D-esque epics of Milton and Spenser; I cackled at the dry wit of the 18th century versemeisters like Pope. It wasn’t like I read only poetry. I’m a nerd child of the 70s, so I keep up a steady diet of science fiction and nonfiction. But for some reason, I arrived at my early 40s having read essentially none of the big novels that are regarded, amongst literary folks anyway, as the crucible of modernity.

I had once considered plugging these cultural holes, and had wandered into a Barnes and Noble to get a copy of War and Peace. But the instant I held it in my hands I knew what would happen. I was going to take it home, and read it attentively for a few days. Maybe I’d even carry it with me on the subway, which would look pretty formidable. But pretty soon lugging around that brick of Russian thought would become such as hassle that I’d stop leaving the house with it — and pretty soon I’d forget to open it at all. It would become buried by magazines or other books on my desk, until months later, when, in the grips of some semiarchaelogical excavation of my home office (or “home” “office”, to be precise) I would find it. Then, to bury my feelings of guilt at having failed at finishing a Great Work, I’d hide it in the remote corner of a bookshelf where it would, hopefully, cease to haunt me.

Image credit: smlp.co.uk

Image credit: smlp.co.uk

This time, I wanted to avoid that fate. And the phone, I figured, would be my instrument of success. The downside of a phone is that it’s a teensy portal into a book; the upside is it’s always with you.

But when I first flicked open the Kindle app and gazed at the cover of War and Peace, it was still pretty intimidating. I thumbed past the table of contents and landed on the first page — “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes” — then glanced down to see I was at Location 152 of 25053. I was only sixth-tenths of 1% into the book. (When a book is truly massive, Kindle metrics take on a rather chilling precision.) I sat down on my couch and began plugging away the first chapter, and noticed that it took 17 minutes of nonstop of reading to tip over to the 2% mark. Doing some quick mental math, I calculated that the whole book would be 27 hours of solid, uninterrupted reading.

War and Peace opening page on iphone IMG_3117

Alas, the first few chapters were not exactly page-turners. War and Peace is an awfully complex book. The cast of characters is so convoluted that early editions shipped with full-spread mappings of who was who, to help you keep it straight in you head. Worse yet, Tolstoy was writing about a conflict — the Napoleonic invasion of Russia — the details of which he assumed readers would be familiar, but of which I was totally clueless. I quickly found myself darting over to Wikipedia every few pages, reading up on minor Russian skirmishes and historic figures, in an attempt to figure out what the heck everyone was talking about. I was barely a half-hour into the book and already the critics of phones had scored a point: I was multitasking like a fiend. In this case, though, my back-and-forth flipping between browser and phone wasn’t eroding my ability to understand the book. On the contrary, it was reinforcing it, helping me stitch Tolstoy together. I doubt I’d have gotten half of what I got out of War and Peace without Wikipedia ready at hand. It’s hard to call that a distraction.

Mind you, I certainly wrestled with social distractions. Your phone is, as I’ve often joked, not really so much a “phone” as a “portal through which five or six gigantic multinational firms fight for your attention so they can sell you advertising.” For services like Facebook and Twitter, distraction is central to the business model. I’d be in the middle of reading about Pierre’s freaky mental state during his duel with Dolokhov over — SPOILERS — Dolokhov’s affair with Princess Helena, Pierre’s wife, when my phone would suddenly ding to tell me zomg dude someone is saying something about you on Twitter, go check it out! I used to enjoy alerts; but with War and Peace, I shut them all down.

I also had to turn off my internal alerts. This is harder to do, and more crucial. We typically assume that outside interruptions — digital beeps and boops — are chiefly what wreck our focus. But as science-of-attention researchers like Gloria Marks have found, the bigger problem is self-interruption. We’re deeply social creatures. When we know that our pockets and purses contain full-on cocktail parties that are raging 24/7, we don’t need beeps and buzzes from social networks to break our concentration. We break it ourselves, voluntarily, checking and rechecking Facebook the instant our mind wanders away from the plot of a novel.

To focus on Tolstoy, I had to be much more “mindful.” I had to start paying attention to my attention, to notice my own urges to peek at Twitter or email, so that I could decide to actively ignore them, instead of responding with a Pavolovian lunge for the app.

*****

Mind you, we’ve been fighting distraction for ages. We like to pretend that modern life is uniquely crowded with busywork and demands on our time, that our attention has never been so frayed, and that folks in the past had deeper focus. But when you read the essays and diaries of those people in the past, their cries of dismay are nearly identical to ours: Our minds wander too easily! The world won’t leave us alone! Our ancestors had it better! In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe complained that modern life made long, sustained attention impossible; one could only read in short chunks. “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression —for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed,” he wrote. Tolstoy himself wrote about the value of mindfulness in War and Peace: “A healthy man can tear himself away from the deepest reflections to say a civil word to someone who comes in and can then return again to his own thoughts.”

But here’s the thing: Staying immersed in a book is a much easier if the book is, well, immersive. Tolstoy wasn’t, at the outset. For the first 15%, I slogged through what seemed like interminable parlor-room arguments by Russian twits, gnarled conversations about Napoleon and assassinations, and Tolstoy’s offputting penchant for describing young women as silly, delightful warbling birds. Man alive, I wondered. Where is this thing going? Paying deep, sustained attention is a grind if you’re not getting any payoff for your effort. When it comes to a bad book, as Schopenhauer quipped, “life is too short.”

But suddenly, War and Peace clicked for me. It was when Tolstoy shifted to his first battle scene. Suddenly his prose began to vibrate with descriptive force: “The regiment fluttered like a bird preening its plumage and became motionless.” (Granted, I’m reading in translation, but still: That’s lovely.) He revealed himself to be a master at describing the psychology of war. When a hopeless fight nears, a Russian general and his colonel disagree about strategy “like two fighting cocks preparing for battle, each vainly trying to detect signs of cowardice in the other.” Meanwhile, the soldier Rostov yearns for action, imagining himself bravely attacking the French enemy: “Everything was becoming more and more happy and animated. ‘Oh, how I will slash at him!’ thought Rostov, gripping the hilt of his saber.” But then he’s shot and, in a whirling moment of disorientation, finds himself pinned beneath his horse, covered in blood, and beholding the advancing French. And then Tolstoy swoops down into Rostov’s mind, and you’re right next to his thoughts as the sudden inversion of fate renders him childlike:

He looked at the approaching Frenchmen, and though but a moment before he had been galloping to get at them and hack them to pieces, their proximity now seemed so awful that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can they be coming at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, and his family’s, and his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible. “But perhaps they may do it!”

Damn. I was hooked. Tolstoy knew a lot about fighting, having witnessed the Crimean War up front, which is why his descriptions of conflict — his precise sketches of battlefield chaos, his pingponging from perspective to perspective — have such a ring of authority. Moral authority, too: When he goes back to the drawing-rooms of Russia, he expertly dismantles and lampoons the pretensions of armchair warriors, the chickenhawks who call for war while never risking their own necks (“… one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.”). I realized that Tolstoy has enormous, empathetic insight into the absurdities and paradoxes of the war-fighting mentality. At one point, Napoleon’s troops desperately try to impress their commander by fording a river, only to drown in the effort, while Napoleon — studying his plans on the riverbank — doesn’t even notice their efforts. In War and Peace, Tolstoy is writing about the French invasion of Russia, of course, but you can’t read his book and not see echoes of every pyrrhic victory and nonvictory in history: Iraq, Vietnam, the mustard gas and millions cut down in the First World War, the young men seduced by bravery and the promise of excitement, only to discover the moral vacuum of battle, and — more often — its crushing boredom.

In war, nobody is in control, though everyone likes to pretend they are. This, I gradually realized, is Tolstoy’s main “point,” such as there is a main one, in War and Peace: That huge forces — politics, ego, money, vanity — sweep up and drag nations and people along to conflict, and the powers that be are merely carried along for the ride. Or, as Tolstoy puts it in one lovely metaphor:

While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible. The ship moves independently with its own enormous motion, the boat hook no longer reaches the moving vessel, and suddenly the administrator, instead of appearing a ruler and a source of power, becomes an insignificant, useless, feeble man.

Tolstoy reserves particular venom for historians who try to explain wars using simple, pat “great man” theories of history. Indeed, he’s nearly deranged by his disdain for this type of theorizing. Over and over again, Tolstoy launches into lunatic, chapter-long subtweets about how dumb historians are. I soon got used to the sudden appearance of these epic rants. One minute I’d be reading about the Fire of Moscow, with the invading French soldiers accidentally burning houses to the ground while trying to cook breakfast in the kitchens; the next minute Tolstoy would start rambling on for 5,000 words about how the idiotic punditry of historians “can only satisfy young children.” He gets so grouchy about historians that at one point he dismisses the entire project of post-Gutenbergian publishing, referring to it “that most powerful engine of ignorance, the diffusion of printed matter.” Later on, he becomes so curdled in his point-scoring and grudge-settling that he actually begins numbering his sentences.

My god, I thought, this guy is completely out of his mind.

I love it.

"Napoleon Moscow Fire" by Unknown German - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon Moscow Fire” by Unknown German[1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

*****

After a month of swiping through Tolstoy on my phone, I confronted something I’d gradually been realizing for years: Phones are an awfully ugly place to experience books. They do not have the gorgeous aesthetics of printed works. At least not yet. This shouldn’t be surprising. Bookmakers have spent hundreds of years patiently tweaking their design for maximum usability and loveliness. In the early years following the Gutenberg explosion, books were, by modern standards, surprisingly weird and unusable. They often had no paragraph breaks, no page numbers, no indexes — none of the features we typically use to navigate and orient ourselves in a book. It took a long time to arrive at their elegant modern design.

Ebooks are still in the “weird and unusable” phase. They’re generally a hassle to flip through, which is why (as studies show) students really don’t like using digital textbooks. Today’s digital books do not give you the nearly-sensual, visual sense of “where” something is in a book. We remember bits of a book not just by the words, but how they looked on the page — where they were located, how our hands lay next to them. I took a class with the literary critic Northrop Frye a few years before he died, and he told us about how, when he moved to Toronto to start teaching, he bought a new Bible. But he found it useless for research: It was laid out differently from the one he’d used back home, and he’d lost all his visual orientation of where things were. With his old Bible, he could flip through and instantly refind a passage, knowing precisely where to look on the page. But the new layout broke this intellectual muscle-memory. (Frye wound up asking his mother to ship over his old Bible from home.) Digital books, with their slithy, constantly reflowing text, create this problem every time we open them up. “The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book,” as Abigail Sellen, a digital thinker for Microsoft Research, told Scientific American, “turns out to be more important than we realized.”

And frankly, I’m offended by the sheer, barking homeliness of most of today’s ebook readers: Their graceless fonts that seem plucked from word processors of the 1980s, Amazon’s puritan refusal to let you tweak the layout in detail. If print books were this shoddily designed, man alive, nobody would buy them. Over 15% of all books sold today are in electronic format, a fact which I have begun to regard as a tribute to the human spirit — a testament to our dogged ability to wring aesthetic joy from devices that seem specifically engineered to kill it.

Yet the thing is, reading War and Peace on my phone had other compensations. I tend to blow up the text into a big font, so a page has only a few hundred words on it. Friends would often peer at my screen and wonder, doesn’t it drive you nuts to read such a big book in such tiny driblets? But the truth is, a small page filled with relatively few words is what books often looked like, back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Check out this page from Conjectures on Original Composition, a book from 1759 by the English poet Edward Young:

Conjectures

It looks very much like War and Peace did on my phone. This is what’s known as the “octavo” format, and it was a very popular way to print books in the 18th century. Books that size (or even smaller, in “duodecimo”) could be easily pocketed or held in one hand; it was for people on the go, tucking reading into their day. Their ultraportable ergonomics were part of their appeal.

And this, of course, is precisely how War and Peace wove its way into my daily habits. Swiping through such small chunks of text seemed less intimidating, and more suited to the ten-minute-long bursts of reading I’d fit into interstitial moments. Because I was carrying the book around all the time, I pulled it out all the time: On the subway, walking down the block to get groceries. (This idea — marrying portability with a small “screen” — is what animated Robert Fair de Graff in 1939, when he invented the “pocket book.” At a mere 4 by 6 inches, it was nearly the same size as a mobile phone, and those playful dimensions — plus the dirt-cheap price of 25 cent — kicked off an explosion of everyday reading.)

A famous pocket book. Image credit: Tom Vincent

A famous pocket book. Image credit: Tom Vincent

The phone’s extreme portability allowed me to fit Tolstoy’s book into my life, and thus to get swept up in it. And it was being swept up that, ironically, made the phone’s distractions melt away. Once you’re genuinely hankering to get back to a book, to delve into the folds of its plot and the clockwork machinations of its characters, you stop needing so much mindfulness to screen out digital diversions. The book becomes the diversion itself, the thing your brain is needling you to engage with. Stop checking your email and Twitter! You’ve got a book to read!

What’s more, there turned out to be surprising cultural benefits of reading not just a book, but a work that’s regarded as — harrumph, harrumph — “important literature.” Reading War and Peace on my phone began to feel different from anything else I did on the device. When I click on Twitter or, say, the Asphalt 6 driving game, I have a mental orientation that says “Hey! Let me entertain myself, enliven my brain, take a break, and maybe find something funny.” But when I clicked on War and Peace, I felt myself assume a kabuki seriousness: I shall now immerse myself in a Work of Art.

This sounds silly, and pretentious. And it was! But a bit of pretentiousness turns out to be cognitively useful. Some new research into the nature of reading suggests an intriguing reason we remember more from print books than digital ones: It’s because we expect print to be intellectually engaging. We approach it with an orientation that “this is serious business,” in a way that we don’t when we read on a screen.

This makes sense when you think about it. Paper books have long been praised as the redoubt of the deep mind. They have fabulous PR. We’re lovebombed with the cultural superiority of cracking open a physical novel. As social media has risen to prominence, this romantic view of paper has only deepened: Pundits and novelists like Jonathan Franzen preach the superiority of printed books with an increasingly messianic fervor, coating the New York Times‘ op-ed pages in a sheen of apocalpytic spittle. It’s no wonder we’ve internalized that hierarchy: Print is serious, screens aren’t.

But what happens if we treat digital screens with the same romance, the same intensity of focus? Studies suggest that the cognitive distinctions go away: We learn just as much, and retain just as much, as we do on paper. As the journalist Ferris Jabr reported in Scientific American, the intellectual differences between paper and bytes may lie in our attitude towards them. When we believe that reading on a phone is equally “serious” as reading on paper, we internalize that reading just as deeply.

I nourish my own Franzenesque romance about books. I love nestling into a chair at night with a paper book, reading in a room that’s pitch black except for a single lamplight pooled on the page, a chiaroscuro of concentration. When we fold ourselves into these literary yoga poses, it’s a ritual of physicality; we are communicating to ourselves, “I am a reader.”

What happened to me with War and Peace on the phone is that precisely the same intensity of cultural purpose kicked in. The more the weeks went by, the more I began to feel that same deep literary intent when I summoned the text onscreen. Tolstoy’s story had become so rewarding — and my desire to dive in so habitual — that the world melted away. At one point into the novel, one of my children started having nightmares soon after going to bed. I’d go up and lie next to him on the floor of his bedroom while he fell back asleep. To pass the time, I’d pull out War and Peace, intending to read for only a few minutes — but then get sucked in, and stay there for an hour, lying on the ground.

The phone offered other delights that paper couldn’t. Midway through the book, voice dictation on the iPhone started to get really, really good. I’d been doing a lot of highlighting while reading Tolstoy, saving my favorite sentences and passages. I wasn’t writing a lot of marginalia because typing on the phone broke my flow a bit too much. But once the voice dictation became fluid, I quickly discovered I could highlight a cool passage and then dash off a paragraph of my own observations, dictating it like Henry James to his secretaries. I started talking to the book — or rather, talking to Siri’s servers, which were transcribing my speech (and, unnervingly, saving copies of everything I say for two years. The audio of my rambling thoughts about Tolstoy are still out there in the aether.).

By the time I was done with War and Peace, I had amassed 12,322 words of highlights and marginalia. It was a terrific way to remind myself of the most resonant parts of Tolstoy. Indeed, I so enjoyed revisiting those notes that I wanted a paper copy of them. Using the Espresso print-on-demand machine at the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York, I had the notes printed up as a small 84-page paperback. It sits on my shelf, a little compilation of my reading and thinking — or, as I titled it, War in Pieces. Here’s what it looks like:

War in pieces IMG_3112

War in pieces IMG_3115

The irony is that I still don’t own a paper copy of the War and Peace itself.

*****

I vividly remember arriving at the final sentence of Tolstoy’s tome, because it came as a surprise.

I had been slowly ascending into the high 90s — having read 97%, then 98%, then 99% of the book, as the Kindle’s little corner meter dutifully reported. Those metrics gave me a fizzy sense of excitement of closing in on the end, much like the haptic sense of anticipation that comes when a huge novel has worn itself down to a few slender pages in your right hand. Then, as I thumbed my way through the 99% point, Tolstoy launched into yet another of his didactic, tendentious rants about the hopeless idiocy of historians. He stopped talking about his characters, about the now-world-weary Pierre. He was just grinding his axe, trash-talking the haters and the morons of the intellectual world. I’d read so many of these passages by now that I figured he would eventually get tired and focus back on a central character the final scene. I figured he’d behave, you know, like a normal novelist.

But no. I was wrong. I arrived at these paragraphs …

As with astronomy the difficulty of recognizing the motion of the earth lay in abandoning the immediate sensation of the earth’s fixity and of the motion of the planets, so in history the difficulty of recognizing the subjection of personality to the laws of space, time, and cause lies in renouncing the direct feeling of the independence of one’s own personality. But as in astronomy the new view said: “It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws,” so also in history the new view says: “It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws.”

In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.

And boom, that was it. The book was over. It was as if Tolstoy hadn’t so much “ended” the book as “been forcibly dragged away from it.” It felt like he’d been midway through a guitar solo when someone stepped on his cord and accidentally unplugged him from his amp. I was baffled. Wait, wait — he can’t possibly be ending this massive epic in the middle of some obtuse harangue about the difficulty of understanding history?

But he was.

I’d been tricked, it seems, by the formatting of the ebook. It seems that the final 1% of the book wasn’t Tolstoy at all, but a long pile of boilerplate public-domain verbiage. I thought I still had another 15 minutes of reading to go, but I didn’t. I was right at the end but didn’t know it, until it arrived.

*****

Reading War and Peace turned out to be not only fun but habit-forming. One of the chief delights of living in the future, as we do, is that many of the world’s big, historic books are in the public domain and have been scanned by the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or Google Books. They’re available at a moment’s notice. If you even think of a historic book, you can, 24 seconds later, be peering into its opening pages. Anything written past 1923 — when copyright clamps down its nearly-deathless grip on American letters — you must pay to read. But anything before that? It’s flowing around us like a stream, to be scooped up whenever you need refreshment.

These days, my reading has bifurcated. Contemporary books, I mostly read in print. This is partly because I still like paper books a lot, but also because I want my local bookstore to survive, so I tend to email them whenever there’s a new book out; they order it in usually within 48 hours, making them essentially as fast as Amazon Prime. But for anything that’s old, classic, or from antiquity, it’s all on my phone. In addition to Tolstoy, I’ve used it to read Middlemarch (crazy-packed with wit), Moby-Dick (in which, because I’m a nerd, I found myself enjoying the whale-physiology stuff even more than Ahab’s black-metal scenes), Crime and Punishment (yikes yikes yikes), and about a third of Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past (which I stopped because, alas, I concluded that I didn’t like Proust very much. War and Peace swept me away, but Proust never stopped being a grind. “Seriousness of purpose” only takes me so far. Apologies to all the Proust fanatics out there; don’t hate me.). At any rate, I’m slowly filling the holes in my knowledge of the big novels. If I had a Kindle meter for my life, it would probably show I’m — what, maybe 11% of along the path of the historic novels I hope to read?

Reading huge works of literature on tiny devices we hold in one hand may seem odd. But in another sense it’s just like the beginnings of writing itself.

Towards the end of Tolstoy, I stumbled across a blog post by Maude Newton that led me to an article by Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Campbell was meditating on cuneiform clay tablets — the oldest medium we’ve ever found with literature on it. Humanity started using cuneiform tablets 5,000 years ago to record merchandise, transactions, the possessions of kings. But pretty soon people started realizing you could write down stories, too. (The Epic of Gilgamesh, the most ancient extant piece of literature, was encoded on cuneiform.) It’s a deeply ancient technology.

Cuneiform tablet. Image credit: Ashley Van Haeften

Cuneiform tablet. Image credit: Ashley Van Haeften

Yet if you look closely at a cuneiform tablet, it also feels oddly familiar, as Campbell notes:

Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad.

This spring, I visited the British Museum with my family. We stopped by their display of cuneiform tablets, and I pulled out my phone. I opened up War and Peace, held it up, and damned if Campbell wasn’t right. Five thousands years ago, humanity’s crazy adventure with writing began with us holding something small in our hands, waiting for the text to speak to us, trying to still our minds long enough to listen to the voice of another. That part, it seems, hasn’t changed.

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