Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age by David M. Levy

04Dec08

Note: This is a paper I wrote for graduate school.

Levy, David M. Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age.
New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.

Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, by David M. Levy, is a general interest book focused on how contemporary people interact with the documents in their lives. Levy uses a multidisciplinary strategy to discuss this complex topic. Levy’s passion and enthusiasm for the subject certainly comes through the work; this excitement saves the book from becoming tedious and flat.

Levy takes an informal and investigative tone while he explores the logistical and philosophical issues surrounding documents. He poses rhetorical questions, often at the end of paragraphs or chapters, which make the reader feel involved in the work. These questions also indicate Levy’s writing process: by setting his own questions into print, Levy is working out his own uncertainties. This transparent style could be polarizing (some may love its honesty, and some may dislike its tedium), but Levy does not hold his questions back. He continuously poses questions to the reader that might be better answered by the author himself. For example: “I have a strong preference for the bound volume—and for my childhood copy, in particular—over the online edition. This should hardly be surprising. But why? Is there just a sentimental attachment to books, or is there something more? (53)” Levy goes on to write that there is something more to his attachment to his copy of Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, and supports his argument with anthropological literature.

Throughout the book, Levy uses a multidisciplinary approach to the subject of documents. His bibliography is impressive. It includes works by Robert Darnton, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Roger Chartier, Wayne Wiegand, Vannevar Bush, and many other respected scholars. Levy uses sources from book studies, library studies, information science, anthropology, and psychology to bolster his own research.

His multifaceted view of the subject, however, might have detracted away from the meat of the matter. The reader must be aware that this is a general interest book (read: not academic); however, it still remains that Levy should have cited more evidence for many of the points he makes. In the chapter about greeting cards, Levy writes, “Generally speaking, African-Americans and those with lower incomes seem to value the exchange of cards more. (97)” There is no citation with a source for this information. Did Levy observe customers at a drugstore picking out greeting cards, upon which he based this claim? If so, he should have made a note of it.

His introduction, “The Universe is Expanding,” begins the book with an anecdotal, personal style. Levy recalls being valedictorian in college, and how documents shaped that experience. He even writes, “Where was the meaning in life? I had considered suicide, but been unwilling to commit it. (xx)” Although this confession seems inappropriate for a book about digital documents, it is Levy’s way of opening up. He seems to want the reader to understand that he is more “human” than other information scientists.

Chapter Four, “The Dark Side of Documents,” is about bureaucratic forms; Chapter Five, “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” is about greeting cards. These chapters are interesting because most readers do not think about most of the documents they interact with every day. Levy’s interpretation of the greeting card as emotional commodity is apt. These chapters challenge the reader to question the pieces of paper that make up their lives, and to ask, “What is not a document?”

One section of the book that falls quite short of the mark is Chapter Three, “Leaves of Grass.” Here, Levy discusses and weighs the features of a Walt Whitman printed book and a Walt Whitman website. He makes several valid points: that the tactile sensation of reading a printed book has emotive power; that the website has less of Whitman’s intent branded on it; and that there are many intermediaries involved in both works (43). These assertions, however, are not enough to keep the chapter from feeling overly sentimental and artificial. Levy states, “When he [Whitman] turned his gaze on New York City, where I grew up, he assure me that the magical qualities I found there were known to others as well, and in other eras than my own. (42)” This phrase is clunky, and it makes Levy seem starstruck by his poetic hero. The chapter continues to move along in this stilted fashion. It seems as though Levy wrote this chapter simply to write about Whitman; if he edited Chapter Three to suit a more general audience, this could be an interesting stand-alone essay. In Scrolling Forward, it feels shoehorned into place.

It is unfortunate that Levy is not a better writer. To his credit, writing a book about documents in a digital age can not have been easy. This subject is huge and fascinating, but in Levy’s hands turns slightly dull. The chapters seem unfocused, yet passionate, which can create a mess. Levy wants to be a good writer and a good researcher. This is evident in some of his prose, which is visceral and rambling. I liked Levy as an author and as a person, but I did not like him as a writer. In this sense, I mean that Levy succeeds at being likable and at having a zest for his work, but he does not entirely succeed in crafting the actual sentences.

That being said, Levy does ultimately succeed with Scrolling Forward. The book is (mostly) interesting, with underlying humor, humanity, and intelligence. While Levy has hope for the future of the document, he also writes, “And even if documents ultimately fail to solve our crisis of mortality, that they manage to achieve any measure of fixity at all in a world of continual flux is surely a remarkable achievement. Their moments of stolen fixity are like temporary steppingstones in the river of time. (189)” Levy’s simile could be extended to say that even stones, which are thought of as immovable and rigid can be washed away by the river, or chipped into smaller stones, or dissolved over the centuries. That is, even those documents that are canonized in a reader’s mind, such as the Constitution, the Bible, Ivanhoe: all of these documents have been and will be changed as time progresses. This is somewhat reassuring, if simultaneously frightening. Nothing will be the same forever, implies Levy, so enjoy these “moments of stolen fixity” while they can still be pinned down.

I would recommend Scrolling Forward because it gives the reader a concise overview of documents and documentation in the context of digitization. The bibliography at the end of the book would be useful to a researcher who was looking for citations on the topic. Levy ties the book together with personal anecdotes and an inelegant style that becomes endearing. This book is not a canonical tome, but it provides a good introduction to this salient topic.

Amanda Lanyon-LeSage, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, The School of Library and Information Studies

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