the form of the (electronic) book 02.21.2005, 7:00 PM
posted by dan visel
Boing Boing points out that professor/prankster Kembrew McLeod has released an electronic version of his new book on copyright Freedom of Expression on his website. The electronic version is released with a Creative Commons license. McLeod's book has not a little to do with what we're working on at the Institute, so I quite happily downloaded the book - you can too! - and found myself with a 384-page PDF of the book. It's indeed the whole book, almost exactly as Doubleday printed it, with the addition of a Creative Commons link on the first page. If you happen to know a book printer and some extra cash, you could send them this file and get a book back in a couple weeks. If you don't have access to a print shop and extra cash but you do have 384 sheets of 8.5'' x 11'' paper & a fast laser printer, you could print it out yourself and have your own telephone-book sized stack of Freedom of Expression.
Of course you could fire up your PDF viewer and read it on the screen of your computer, which is probably what you were expecting to do. But that's where the trouble starts.
While it's certainly poor form to complain about what's being given away for free, it's a remarkably painful experience to try and read this book on your computer. In large part, this is because it's not meant to be read on a screen. This PDF is the same file that Doubleday's production staff sent to the printer - with crop marks and the QuarkXPress filename at the top of every page. Because there's padding around the text so that it can be safely printed, you need to blow up the magnification to actually be able to read the text. There's a great deal of wasted space you need to page through (click on the thumbnail at right for an example of how this looked in full-screen Adobe Acrobat on my computer). Because Doubleday's making books in Quark with no thought to reusing or repurposing content, this file doesn't have any of the niceties that a PDF could have - an interactive table of contents, for example, is useful in a three-hundred page book. Worse: while one of the great benefits of the Creative Commons license is that it allows users to quote and create derivative works from licensed material. It's not as simple as you'd like to copy text out of a PDF.
From a design perspective, this is a disaster, and one for which I'll blame the publishing company - this has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the book, merely the form. While it's a decent-looking book in print, the printed page doesn't work in the same way as the screen, and there's been no accounting for this at all. We take for granted the physical book as an object, although it really is a quietly brilliant design, a perfect synthesis of form and function. When electronic books are presented to the public devoid of both, it's little wonder they haven't taken off. Nobody's going to want to read a book on a screen unless it looks good on the screen. One might be forgiven for imagining that this is a publisher's scheme to encourage people to buy the actual book.
gary frost on February 22, 2005 8:28 AM:
Printed out (simplex) the ebook uses twice as much paper as the paper book. I have also outlined other reasons why the electronic simulated book is forever taking off.
"Secondary haptic features of the booke follow as the hands prompt the mind in an ergonomic of comprehension. At first it is odd that concepts should be conveyed by physical objects. Electronic transmission better mimics the neural connectivity of the mind, but the physical booke better engages the hands to prompt the mind. We always recall read precepts in their physical location on the page of a specific booke. Other fingerings of page turning and manipulations of booke structure work as prompts to our progression through content.
In contrast to the manual punctuation of the page and the physical clock of content of the codex, the on-line page is manipulated with impaired haptic feedback. The "previous/next" click, the cursor slider and scroll tabs utilize grip and finger motion directed to the mouse and keyboard, but not to the substrate of the text. At least two other layers of interruption intervene. There is the electrified, rather than manual, instigation and an indirect interfacing via the navigational software. With a booke, the reader is the interface."