screenreading reconsidered 03.19.2007, 1:45 AM
posted by ben vershbow
There's an interesting piece by Cory Doctorow in Locus Magazine, a sci-fi and fantasy monthly, entitled "You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen." discussing the differences between on and offline reading.
The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Computers want you to do lots of things with them. Networked computers doubly so -- they (another RSS item) have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.
And he illustrates his point by noting throughout the article each time he paused his writing to check an email, read an RSS item, watch a YouTube clip etc.
I think there's more that separates these forms of reading than distracted digital multitasking (there are ways of reading online reading that, though fragmentary, are nonetheless deep and sustained), but the point about cognitive difference is spot on. Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, most people have indeed become quite comfortable reading off of screens. Yet publishers still scratch their heads over the persistent failure of e-books to build a substantial market. Befuddled, they blame the lack of a silver bullet reading device, an iPod for books. But really this is a red herring. Doctorow:
The problem, then, isn't that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren't screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
Electronic books are a wonderful adjunct to print books. It's great to have a couple hundred novels in your pocket when the plane doesn't take off or the line is too long at the post office. It's cool to be able to search the text of a novel to find a beloved passage. It's excellent to use a novel socially, sending it to your friends, pasting it into your sig file.
But the numbers tell their own story -- people who read off of screens all day long buy lots of print books and read them primarily on paper. There are some who prefer an all-electronic existence (I'd like to be able to get rid of the objects after my first reading, but keep the e-books around for reference), but they're in a tiny minority.
There's a generation of web writers who produce "pleasure reading" on the web. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are enraging. Most dwell in Sturgeon's 90th percentile and below. They're not writing novels. If they were, they wouldn't be web writers.
On a related note, Teleread pointed me to this free app for Macs called Tofu, which takes rich text files (.rtf) and splits them into columns with horizontal scrolling. It's super simple, with only a basic find function (no serious search), but I have to say that it does a nice job of presenting long print-like texts. By resizing the window to show fewer or more columns you can approximate a narrowish paperback or spread out the text like a news broadsheet. Clicking left or right slides the view exactly one column's width -- a simple but satisfying interface. I tried it out with Doctorow's piece:
I also plugged in Gamer Theory 2.0 and it was surprisingly decent. Amazing what a little extra thought about the screen environment can accomplish.
Judith Elaine Bush on March 19, 2007 10:20 AM:
I am quite happy to read from the digital press. I read three novels on my palm Treo this past weekend, only one in a context other than home. In 1999, I read Austen's _Emma_ and several other nineteenth century novels using the Guntenberg ASCII text sitting at a CRT. I read an online novel published in installments in around 1995 which was fabulous, and i wish i could find again.
To me, the biggest block is DRM functions that squeeze me into particular readers. If i can't have the book in a form I like -- and PDF is the least enjoyable common reading format as far as i'm concerned, but i've been spared exposure to the Windows-only formats -- i'll go find something else i like. There are plenty of wonderful things to read out there that i don't have to play games with the publishers.
bob stein on March 19, 2007 4:31 PM:
i disagree with you and Cory. it's not that i think that computers are a good place for reading novels -- they're not yet -- but i don't see any good evidence yet that it's because there is a fundamental disconnect.
we listen to music and watch movies on our computers because the experience is close enough to the experience we're used to. reading doesn't work for many of us because the experience just isn't good enough yet.
part of what's going on is that listening and watching don't involve holding something in your hand the way a book does. i think that is part of the reason why people seem to enjoy reading on PDAs eventhough the screen is so small; they are holding the "book" in their hand which seems natural.
another problem is that you've likely never had the experience of reading a novel on-screen which was formatted for the screen and it's also possible that all your on-screen reading experiments have been with texts you weren't excited about reading in the first place.
i think this will be a more interesting and fruitful discussion sometime in the next 5-10 years when someone puts into your hands a device which looks and feels right -- the screen may even be made of paper -- loaded with a novel you're dying to read.
Steven Harris on March 20, 2007 9:47 AM:
In the absence of a truly book-like ebook reader, I'd have to say the Doctorow's comments are purely speculation. We don't know if people would be willing to read novels from a device because no device truly approximates the book experience. I should qualify this statement with "in great numbers," because many people now read novels on PCs, laptops, and PDAs. The numbers just don't begin to approach those of print readers.
Gerald Everett Jones on March 20, 2007 11:49 AM:
I just finished converting the comic novel My Inflatable Friend for release as a PDA ebook on Mobipocket.com. Besides the challenge of file conversion, what struck me is the difference in aesthetics when the text is made reflowable. The layout of the HTML is fluid, adaptable to the dimensions of the display and also to the user's preference for text size. Yes, the smell of the paper is gone, but so too is the designer's meticulous control over the look of the finished page.
Rebecca Lossin on March 20, 2007 10:17 PM:
My first impulse, when addressing the issue of the book vs. the computer, is to make an argument grounded in the sensory (and sensual) differenes between the two experiences. Books have smells, blemishes, textures etc. that are entirely different from the computer's. But it is true that we are becoming accustomed to interacting with the latter and, save for the fact that a coffee stain on a book is arguably endearing and on a computer surely not, there is no way to quantify either experience and so no way to know which sensory aspect of the book experience cannot be replaced. Bob Stein pointed out that palm pilots are more similar to books in that they fit in your hand. True, but for me it is the ability to rifle the page corners with my index finger because I can't smoke in public places that is what's missed. And for someone else I am sure it has to do with the fact that the book was 4.99 and sitting next to the check out counter.
There is however a difference as far as hitorical precedent is concerned. What books and computer screens do have in common is that they are textual. When the printing press made novels available to a general public, or the bible at least, there was no textual predecessor to displace. Of course the cognitive shift from an oral to a written culture is a complicated one but the novel did not, as the computer does, remind the reader of something they used to do. As a culture we are inescapably nostolgic for the book.
Also, as for how long it will take for this e-book thing to really catch on, hundreds of years passed before most people in western europe were able to read those children of moveable type and talk radio is popular enough to show that text never truly took the place of its predecessor anyway.
bowerbird on March 21, 2007 3:02 AM:
it is only a matter of time --
and maybe not much time at that
-- before reading from a screen is
more convenient, less costly, and
(believe it or not) more ergonomic
than reading from a paper-book...
there will always be a place for
paper-books, just like there is
still room in our society for
horses, even though nobody uses
them for transportation any more.
paper-books will be for documentation
and preservation, not communication...
Joe Huck on March 22, 2007 2:24 AM:
I believe that reading from a screen will not replace reading hard copy until web browser and eBook developers abandon the inappropriate metaphors of the page and the vertical scroll and take a fresh look at the act of reading and how it is constrained by the human visual system. The Tofu application appears to be a giant leap in the right direction. Can't wait to download it and try it out. I have been thinking along similar lines and recently put the ideas down in an article entitled "A Lesson from Alexandria: What Ancient Technology Can Teach Us about Reading in the Digital Age."
I've also incorporated some of the ideas into a demo application for PCs. The application, along with some HTML files optimized to be viewed with it, can be found here. Note that I'm not a programmer, and I'm not trying to develop a finished product. I'm merely using the program to explore the workability of the ideas, and it therefore has somewhat limited functionality (if it works at all). I'm hoping that it works well enough to provide someone with the inspiration to create some truly useful applications. I'll be interested to see how my efforts compare with those of the Tofu developers.
If you download the application archive (cScroll.zip), right click on it and select 'extract all...' and indicate where on your hard drive you want the cScroll folder to be located. In the 'dist' subfolder will be found the executable file 'cscrollNB.exe,' along with some essential files. Double-click on it to start the program.
bowerbird on March 22, 2007 12:54 PM:
> I believe that reading from a screen
> will not replace reading hard copy
> until web browser and eBook developers
> abandon the inappropriate metaphors of
> the page and the vertical scroll and take
> a fresh look at the act of reading and how
> it is constrained by the human visual system.
e-book designers abandoned the vertical scroll
a long, long time ago.
> The Tofu application appears to be
> a giant leap in the right direction.
the use of columns is not new.
and to the extent that tofu's columns are not
always sized to the screen, they're inefficient.
> Can't wait to download it and try it out.
wait... you're calling it "a giant leap" and you
haven't even tried it out yet?
> I have been thinking along similar lines and
> recently put the ideas down in an article entitled
> "A Lesson from Alexandria: What Ancient Technology
> Can Teach Us about Reading in the Digital Age."
i'm sure it's a giant leap forward. so i'll go read it... ;+)
> I've also incorporated some of the ideas into
> a demo application for PCs. The application,
> along with some HTML files optimized to be
> viewed with it, can be found here.
even better, a demo app. i love that extra mile...
just too bad i'm a mac person. ;+)
bowerbird on April 3, 2007 3:54 PM:
since ben pointed to these comments in a new entry,
i should let you know, joe, i tried to run your demo,
but the program wouldn't run.
in reading your supporting material, however, i see
that the "chunks" that you are naming as "columns"
are what most e-book designers have called "pages".
just so you know. and yes, that means sometimes
there will be _two_ pages displayed on the screen.
(but usually no more, except on a cinema screen.)
and yes, it also means pages are dynamic, not fixed.
all of which is to say that your thoughts parallel
those of almost all dedicated e-book designers.
i myself favor this 2-up design, and my mode is to
drop out one of the pages when necessary to display
the table of contents, large graphics, listboxes to let
the user select a font, a previous page, and so on.
web-designers are another breed, but even they
now realize they must use shorter line-lengths.
their favored strategy these days is _3_ columns,
with a big one (that uses roughly half the screen)
in the middle of the window, and two "sidebars"
flanking it, for blogrolls, google ads, and so on.
that's primarily because they can't easily "chop"
the long browser page into dynamic "columns".
but some sites -- predominently newspapers --
are using java to get the effect that you advocate.
for instance, here's a fairly good example of that:
click on the "3-column format" link that you'll see.
(i picked an article for you that is worth reading.)
Joe Huck on April 7, 2007 6:28 PM:
Thanks for the comments (and your earlier comments), and thanks for going to the trouble to try out my demo. The original distribution worked on most machines on which it was tried. I found that when it didn't, adding an additional .dll to the 'dist' subfolder did the trick. If you're still interested, you might want to give that a try. I've added that to the distribution .zip file as well. I'm not really a programmer so I don't know why it works (if it does).
I'm learning that, as you said, similar ideas are out there. And that's good. The Mobipocket Reader for desktop PCs incorporates much the same features, with lots more functionality. As for the '3-column format' link in the (interesting) article you linked to, it's good to see that web designers are at least aware of readability issues and are trying to address them. I found the 3-column window to be still pretty inflexible: you're stuck with 3 columns, the window and font size were fixed, and the line breaks (at least on my system) were not always clean, but split the type horizontally.
I do tend to think of eBook readers and web browsers as becoming kinda the same thing, at least in the challenges their designers face in presenting readable text on displays of various sizes and proportions. Reading is reading, and the easier it becomes to do on line, the less we'll rely on hard copy. Perhaps in the future, the printing of books will be reserved for works of art, like those of Irma Boom.
bowerbird on April 12, 2007 5:28 PM:
the new download of your demo app worked fine.
your program does a great job making your point,
and actually ends up being a sweet little viewer.
you can probably stop referring to yourself as
"not a programmer" anymore, as nobody will know.
Andy on September 19, 2007 10:53 PM:
An interesting conversation you two have had here in this little corner of the Web. I tried your progam, Joe, and it worked fine on a few lightly-formatted texts I have here. An excellent effort.
I read lots of paper text in narrow columns and prefer it. Often my solution online is to enlarge the text to a point that the column is forced to be narrow (a manipulation that is easy with the Opera browser).
Another thought I had is that it is fairly common now to have computer screens that can be rotated on their sides for taller columnar reading--more like a newspaper. Try it if you can. A laptop on its side even looks like a book.
I came to this discussion through discovering Tofu and was looking for an equivalent Windows program. Someday I may find it, or Joe could give the project over to someone in the open source community who's interested in text viewers. Maybe they'll be able to realize the shared vision here on this page. :)