This kind of reading was grounded not just in the book generically, but in a particular book. Remember, of course, that books were relatively scarce artifacts and that reproducing them was a laborious task, although often one lovingly undertaken. This much is well known. What might not be as well known is that many features that we take for granted when we read a book had not yet been invented. These include, for example, page numbers, chapter headings, paragraph breaks, and alphabetical indexes. These are some of the dozen or so textual innovations that Illich had in mind when he talks about the transformation of the experience of reading in the 12th century. What they provide are multiple paths into a book. If we imagine the book as an information storage technology (something we can do only on the other side of this revolution) then what these new tools do is solve the problems of sorting and access. They help organize the information in such a way that readers can now dip in and out of what now can be imagined as a text independent of the book.
I’ve found it helpful to think about this development by recalling how Katherine Hayles phrased one of the themes of How We Became Posthuman. She sought to show, in her words, “how information lost its body.” Illich is here doing something very similar. The text is information that has lost its body, i.e. the book. According to Illich, until these textual innovations took hold in the 12th century, it was very hard to imagine a text apart from its particular embodiment in a book, a book that would’ve born the marks of its long history—in the form, for example, of marginalia accruing around the main text.
I’ve also thought about this claim by analogy to the photograph. The photograph is to the book as the image is to the text. This will likely make more sense if you are over 35 or thereabouts. Today, one can have images that live in various devices: a phone, a laptop, a tablet, a digital picture frame, the cloud, an external drive, etc. Before digital photography, we did not think in terms of images but rather of specific photographs, which changed with age and could be damaged or lost altogether. Consequently, our relationship to the artifact has changed. Roland Barthes couldn’t be brought to include the lone photograph he possessed of his mother in his famous study of photography, Camera Lucida published in 1980. The photograph was too private, his relationship to it too intimate. This attitude toward a photographic image is practically unintelligible today. Or, alternatively, imagine the emotional distance between tearing a photograph and deleting an image. This is an important point to grasp because Illich is going to suggest that there’s another analogous operation happening in the 12th century as the individual detaches from their community. But we’ll come back to that in the last section.