Reading “Books” on the iPad and Kindle

The introduction of “wireless reading devices,” first, Amazon.com’s Kindle and Kindle DX, and now, Apple’s iPad—which is intended for more than reading—has created speculation and some worry and sadness, about the the demise of those other “wireless reading devices” with which we are all familiar—the printed book. Perhaps indeed Amazon and Apple are hastening the end of the printed book’s life. Nonetheless, there is at least one important sense in which the kindle, for its part, extends the influence of the printed book: essential elements of the experience of reading print are reproduced on the Kindle, and presumably, will be on the iPad as well.

The page layout of a good printed book is designed for readability. Traditionally, printed books are formatted with wide margins, a relatively narrow single column of text, single spaced, and justified. Variations on this theme—marginal notes, illumination and rubrication, and the like—are intended to mark a deviation from it, and reflect the author’s intention to influence the reader’s reception of the work. Some variations result from publishers’ need to keep costs down. A cheap paperback has narrow margins, using less paper. Most readers find this hard to hold without obscuring some of the text. It is difficult to find studies reported in the social science literature about why the standard page layout is especially readable. Part of the explanation is probably familiarity. Readers are accustomed to the standard layout. Single spacing, narrow columns, and justified margins may ease the burden on the eye by fixing the size and shape of the block of text it must scan.

The kindle, and most probably, whatever e-Book format is adopted for use with the iPad, preserve this basic layout design. The Kindle’s screen is designed to reproduce the experience of reading a printed book. The screen “reads like real paper,” and the controls for moving through an e-Book are labeled “next page” and “previous page,” and one display’s worth of content is labeled “page X of Y,” this label appearing on each “page” much in the same way it would on a printed page or a print book. One commenter on the Amazon.com web site remarks:

Overall, the DX feels more like text and less like device and comes closer to the stated goal of the Kindle: for the device to disappear, leaving only the joy of reading.

There are important senses in which e-Book readers and the Internet more generally have changed the way we read. One the one hand, the standard page layout is especially well-suited for reading extended passages of text, requiring concentration and a sense of continuity. Digital texts have capabilities not possessed by print books, including hypertext linking. Digital texts can be distributed to vastly more people than can print texts. Until no one reads in the manner in which printed books were intended, e-Books will continue to present text in the same way it is presented now, using the standard, traditional page layout design. Typography and layout of text on the Kindle is relatively primitive; fonts do not have ligatures, and they still appear blocky and angular, in contrast to the gorgeous and subtle characters produced even in Gutenberg’s own time. As e-Books develop, these visual elements will be developed, bringing the e-reading experience that much closer to the experience of reading a printed book.

Some of these remarks have appeared previously in “Print reference sources about evolution,” Evolution: Education & Outreach 2, 2009.

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