Review: The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll (Amazon affiliate link) is a non-fiction book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard. It focuses primarily on how scrolls were used in the Middle Ages in Europe (but also covers the global use of scrolls in passing), and gives plentiful examples from a variety of contexts.

When I say that The Role of the Scroll covers a niche topic, I do not mean to say that it is strictly scientific and bland. Far from going into meaningless specifics about minutiae, it focuses on the historical significance of scrolls both as a class of document and as individual examples of manuscripts that changed or represented the world.

I generally enjoyed the book, though I have a few complaints that I’ll get to later. First I’d like to start with what I liked about it, and I’ll get to the rougher patches in a bit.

The strongest point of this whole book is that it elevates a very humble thing and dives into it in a way that to my knowledge has never been done before. As someone who likes reading quite a bit and has a connection with the written word, it’s interesting to see examples of a device that is not quite as dead as it may seem (I am typing this review in a text-box, a sort of digital scroll), and which had a tremendous value for shaping our world.

The opening chapters are strictly limited to scrolls themselves, giving examples from across world history and not just Europe (something I consider a strong point), and they’re probably the most similar to the sort of history book you’d expect.

Once you get past the opening chapters, Kelly moves into overviews of the various types of scroll used in the Middle Ages. Each overview uses examples from surviving scrolls, and the overall style is more lively and deep.

Kelly is professor of music, but he handles history fantastically well. The only hint that one gets that Kelly’s focus is in music and not history is in his deeper focus on musical works than some of the other documents, but even this is handled in a way that’s tremendously accessible.

The print edition I had was printed on thick glossy paper and had beautiful illustrations. The actual printing itself is fantastic and the book feels both good in the hand and easy to read. Some text for the captions around the illustrations of scrolls was hard to read in certain light (white text on a glossy black page background), so I might recommend the digital edition for anyone who would find this to be an issue. The scrolls themselves are not always able to be read; the reproduction is good, but often a whole scroll of several feet in length winds up on a page. Fortunately, Kelly points out interesting excerpts from the text, sometimes in captions by the illustration and sometimes in the main body text of the book, and one gets a feel for the beauty and majesty of the scrolls without necessarily being able to read them.

My only gripe is that The Role of the Scroll feels like it’s half-way between being a book for laypeople and a book for historians. On one hand, Kelly goes into a lot of detail explaining what people might need to know and establishing the human condition that led to the creation of scrolls. This is generally done in a way that even those not familiar with European history would be able to appreciate.

On the other hand, Kelly’s focus on making things immediately comprehensible to a layperson also means that basic things that would be common knowledge for people with a good knowledge of history get expanded upon greatly. This is then mirrored by an abstention from going into the most deep and complicated elements of the situations surrounding scrolls (except as pertains to music, where Kelly goes into greater detail). It may be that some of this information is not immediately available or would quickly veer off topic (for example, only a very cursory account is given of alchemical scrolls, but to give greater detail would definitely require going on a tangent).

Ultimately, this is a good book for an interesting read, and the illustrations stand out wonderfully throughout. It gives both a personal and serious look at its historical subjects, and leaves one with a greater understanding of the topic.

Writer’s note: Because The Role of the Scroll has no reviews on Amazon, I cross-posted this text there. I gave a five-star review, though if given more granularity I’d probably give it more of a 4.5 or 4.7 out of 5. It’s far from a perfect text, but it is a pioneering one.

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