Ancient Marginalia: The Eternal Ellipses

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


The end of the book is just the beginning.

Print books encourage finality.  Digital reading experiences don’t have to.

Scholar Walter Ong, in working out the many significant differences between ancient oral culture and the print culture we inhabit, astutely states that “Print is only comfortable with finality.”  Ong observes that “print encourages a sense of closure; a feeling of finality which has reached a state of completion.”  Print does this even more so than the imperfectly copied and ceaselessly varying artifacts of the scribal era.  Nothing says ‘this is it and that is that’ like millions of identical unvarying and static copies.

This finality, he offers, serves to practically close off printed works from other works.  Discrete and perfect, individual works seem to stand apart from each other, authored by a single genius.  While beautiful and exciting (and readily marketable), the physicality of print books belies the real intertextuality and interplay of influence that is the content.

For early printers, this was indeed a novelty that needed addressing.  Fifteenth century printers often added terminal formulae to their works to underscore finality.  Final pages of the books abound with  ‘Et sic est finis’, ‘Thus endeth this worke’, and most unambiguously, “THE END”.

But is it really?  The book may end, but content never ends.  It is the middle of an influence stream, a discussion (for nonfiction) and the middle of some larger tale (for fiction).  It is also the start of something –  content inspires infinite



discussions with and between readers.  Hence those wide margins and myriad manicules of the early days. Content is Heraclitus’ stream, not an object under glass.

Ah – but now that it is under glass, we’ve an opportunity to fashion a more open reading experience. One that more closely resembles that orality to which Ong was comparing print.  As readers of this series know, early books were frequently shared and the resulting cloud of marginalia was an influential force on the content of some books as they evolved.

But now, we can design beyond FINIS and allow content an even more dynamic life than the ancient shared scrolls enjoyed.  Features like shared marginalia, group discussion, transmedia, dynamic content, and personalized content will return the eternal ellipses to the end, of the beginning

Expert Publishing Blog
Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

About Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

Corey is an anthropologist, futurist, author, and speaker. He is busy imagining and enacting our digital future as Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a Portland-based agency and imagination lab. A Fellow of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, Corey regularly publishes and presents on the past, present, and future of media. He recently contributed the closing chapter to the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture.

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