why is text on screens so ugly? 02.27.2009, 11:09 AM
posted by dan visel
There have been a raft of reviews of the new Kindle and the various iPhone reading applications lately. In general, reviewers are more positive about the experience of reading from a screen than they have been in the past. However, I've noticed that one enormous factor in reading tends to get passed by; maybe it's not something that people notice if they don't think about book design. See if you can identify it from these screenshots, which you can click to enlarge:
The new Kindle 2:
The latest Sony Reader:
Stanza, a popular iPhone ebook app:
eReader, another popular iPhone ebook app:
All of these screen-reading environments fully justify their paragraphs of text: there's not a ragged right margin. This is what we tend to expect books to look like: typically, a book page has an even rectangle of text on it, a tradition that extends back to Gutenberg's 42-line Bible:
One might notice here, however, that Gutenberg's page has something that the screen-reading environments do not: hyphenation. When Gutenberg's words don't fit in a line (see, for example, the third line down in the right column) he broke them with a hyphen, starting a tradition in book design that has made its way to the present moment. The reason for hyphenation is apparent if you look at the shots of the screen-reading devices: if words aren't split, often the spacing between words must be increased, making it harder for the eye to follow. This is more apparent when the width of the text column (called the measure) is narrow, as is the case on iPhone apps: notice how spaced-out the penultimate line, "necessary to effectiveness in an", is in the eReader screenshot. The Kindle and the Sony Reader look a little bit better because there aren't such glaring white spaces in the text, although weirdly both appear to have lines in the middle of paragraphs that aren't fully justified.
Why don't these reading devices hyphenate their lines if they fully justify them? This isn't, for what it's worth, a problem that affects more than just these devices; plenty of text on the web is fully justified and has no hyphenation. The problem is that hyphenation is trickier than it might initially appear. To properly hyphenate a paragraph, the hyphenator needs to understand at least something about how the language that the paragraph of text is written in works. Here's how Robert Bringhurst outlines what he calls the "etiquette of hyphenation and pagination" as rules for compositors in his authoritative Elements of Typographic Style:
2.4.1. At hyphenated line-ends, leave at least two characters behind and take at least three forward.
2.4.2. Avoid leaving the stub-end of a hyphenated word, or any word shorter than four letters, as the last line of a paragraph.
2.4.3. Avoid more than three consecutive hyphenated lines.
2.4.4. Hyphenate proper names only as a last resort unless they occur with the frequency of common nouns.
2.4.5. Hyphenate according to the conventions of the language.
2.4.6. Link short numerical and mathematical expressions with hard spaces.
2.4.7. Avoid beginning more than two consecutive lines with the same word.
2.4.8. Never begin a page with the last line of a multi-line paragraph.
2.4.9. Balance facing pages by moving single lines.
2.4.10. Avoid hyphenated breaks where the text is interrupted.
2.4.11. Abandon any and all rules of hyphenation and pagination that fail to serve the needs of the text.
Rule 2.4.5 might be worth quoting in full:
In English we hyphenate cab-ri-o-let but in French ca-brio-let. The old German rule which hyphenated Glockenspiel as Glok-kenspiel was changed by law in 1998, but when össze is broken in Hungarian, it still tuns into ösz-sze. In Spanish the double consonants ll and rr are never divided. (The only permissible hyphenation in the phrase arroz con pollo is thus arroz con po-llo.) The conventions of each language are part of its typographic heritage and should normally be followed, even when setting single foreign words or brief quotations.
Can a computer hyphenate texts? Sure: if these rules can be made comprehensible to a computer, it can sensibly hyphenate a text. Donald Knuth's TeX typesetting program, for example, contains hyphenation dictionaries: lists of words in which the various points at which they can be hyphenated are marked. Hyphenation points are arranged by "badness": it's worse to use hy-phenation than hyphen-ation, for example, but it would be even worse not to break the word and leave a gap of white space in the line. The TeX engine tries to find the least bad way to set a line; it usually does a reasonable job. Not all hyphenation is equal, however: Adobe InDesign, for example, will do a much better job of hyphenating a paragraph than Microsoft Word will.
And: as rule 2.4.5 suggests, if a computer is going to hyphenate something, it needs to know what language the text is in. This is a job for metadata: electronic books could have an indicator of what language they're in, and the reader application could hyphenate automatically. But that won't always help: in the text on the Kindle screen, for example, der Depperte isn't English and wouldn't be recognized as such. A human compositor could catch that; a computer wouldn't guess, and would have to default to not breaking it. The same problem will happen with proper names.
There aren't really easy solutions for this problem. A smarter ebook reading device (and smarter ebooks) might hyphenate automatically; if this were the case, the reader would need to rehyphenate whenever the user changed the font or the font size. (There are some possibilities in HTML, but they do require a lot of work on the part of the author or designer; some day this might work better.) It's not a problem with PDFs, of course, but PDFs don't allow reflowing text. There's no shame in using a ragged right margin; at least then one might not subject to Bringhurst's opprobrium towards to poorly justified in The Elements of Typographic Style:
A typewriter (or a computer-driven printer of similar quality) that justifies its lines in imitation of typesetting is a presumptuous machine, mimicking the outer form instead of the inner truth of typography.
Posted by dan visel on February 27, 2009 11:09 AM
Edward Visel on February 27, 2009 8:11 PM:
Though maybe this is an already well-worked over point, I still find it surprising that you don't mention fonts. The design of a font has a huge impact on how easy it is to read; in my own opinion, most of the ones used in the examples you gave are not particularly good. It's also possible that one can change fonts on some of these devices—due to lack of experience I cannot say.
A particular dilemma for books on a screen is serif versus sans-serif font. While Arial likely displays better on an iPhone screen—pixels just cannot do justice to the nuance of most serifs—it also further takes away part of the feeling of reading a book, clearly connected to the nostalgia felt for physical books. While someday screens will be able to display serifs as ably as paper and this will be a moot point, for now, it is a serious problem for any electronic book designer.
Mark on February 27, 2009 8:45 PM:
Um, why can't the "foreign" text phrases be marked up as being in, say, German? I don't see how this could, or, at least, should, be a problem not easily overcome.
barbara fister on February 27, 2009 9:13 PM:
I hadn't thought of the hyphenation issue, but you're right.
I also miss the fact that the interior of books are designed in traditional books - someone had to choose the font, the chapter headings, the headers and page number placement, the dropped capitals, whether there would be any design element dividing sections, how much space there's be between lines .... every book is slightly different, but they all look the same when ported onto a Kindle or Stanza or just about anything else that isn't a .pdf. I suspect most of the time most readers don't think about the page design, but its loss is one of the reasons I find reading e-books a diminished experience.
I'm also not too thrilled that you can't cite a page number, but I guess I'm old-fashioned that way.
Marc on February 27, 2009 9:46 PM:
Stanza does hyphenate the text, but you need to enable it in the book reading preferences. You can even pick the language you want to use for the hyphenation. In my experience, enabling hyphenation makes the text infinitely more readable.
To my knowledge, Stanza is the only reader that does this sort of automatic hyphenation at this time.
Alain Pierrot on February 28, 2009 2:45 AM:
Copies of Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style should be given as a "must read" to every:
- eBook hardware designer
- reader software developer
However, storing the necessary hyphenation dictionaries, powering an adequate typesetting engine on mobile devices compete with the (actual) requirements of memory, power consumption. Not very easy to find the right trade-off!
It might be interesting to build best practice cases about hyphenation for ePub with IDPF?
bowerbird on February 28, 2009 5:11 AM:
all you really needed to quote was this:
> 2.4.11. Abandon any and all rules of hyphenation
> and pagination that fail to serve the needs of the text.
see, in an e-book, _all_ hyphenation
"fails to serve the needs of the text."
hyphenation breaks search in _many_
e-book programs (and since search is
such an important element of e-books,
that's a serious flaw). furthermore, it
causes problems when text is copied
out of the e-book for remix purposes.
the best thing to do with hyphenation
is therefore to _turn_it_off_. completely.
and don't ever turn it back on. never...
we don't have to give up justification,
or just grow resigned to loose lines...
there _are_ some solutions we can use.
i will be showing and discussing them,
in the context of some meanderings on
book-design and typography that i have
been doing over on o'reilly's "toc" blog.
i invite you to see my comments there,
last week and continuing on next week.
Jack on February 28, 2009 10:18 AM:
There's no reason that hyphenation done on-the-fly as part of a reading system should break search. It's hyphenation that's input manually as part of the text itself that has that effect. It's a common problem in print-designed books that are converted to e-books but doesn't need to be.
Stanza also allows users to turn on ragged right margins; that's how I use it. But I prefer ragged margins, even in print. Being able to dispense with hyphenation is only the first good thing about them.
Joe Clark on February 28, 2009 4:09 PM:
Tagged PDFs reflow just fine (use only tagged PDFs for E-books, please), and you can mark up full documents and portions thereof with language tags in HTML or PDF.
Please do not make it sound like the basic metadata problem hasn’t been solved.
Dmitri Minaev on February 28, 2009 4:55 PM:
I'm afraid that the e-readers you have chosen to illustrate your point are far from the best ones of their kind (actually, Kindle is just frightening, it's so huge and too heavy). More advanced readers can hyphenate the text on the fly. Take, for example, Hanlin V3 (aka BeBook or EZ Reader). It supports hyphenation. And no, it does not need to do that. And no, hyphenation does not make search impossible :) (you'll need to modify the firmware to use search, though).
bowerbird on March 1, 2009 3:48 AM:
> There's no reason that
> hyphenation done on-the-fly
> as part of a reading system
> should break search.
well, maybe not "theoretically"...
but you don't see much hyphenation
being done "on-the-fly" yet because
it is relatively costly resource-wise...
that little "blip" you see when stanza
goes to a new chapter is an example.
and if stanza didn't chop up books
into little pieces like it does, the blip
would be even longer than it is now.
> It's hyphenation that's input
> manually as part of the text itself
> that has that effect.
have you programmed e-book apps?
i have. and i've closely examined
most of the apps out there, and
there's a wide range of expertise
being displayed in them, so it's just
unwise to make blanket statements.
when the majority of apps out there
being used by the public at large
can handle the challenges posed
-- i mean the _basic_ challenges --
then we can start worrying about
the fancy things like hyphenation...
> Tagged PDFs reflow just fine
_kinda_ fine, but only a very tiny
percentage of .pdfs are "tagged".
and most people _hate_ .pdf, so
that's not gonna be the solution...
> And no, hyphenation does not
> make search impossible :)
i didn't say it makes it "impossible".
i said it _breaks_ search, in _many_
e-book programs, and that's a fact.
it's all so nice that you can point to
one or two apps or machines that
can do it "just fine", but the public
is still using a wide variety of apps,
and machines, and they want to
be able to _convert_ books from
one format to another, and another,
and another, so you need to think
of the entire infrastructure, and
_not_ just pick-and-choose parts.
and yes, eventually we will be able
to leave the slow players behind,
but it's still to early in the race to
determine who the slow ones are.
now, if you care to continue this,
see the examples i'll be sharing
with people on o'reilly's toc blog,
where i show how you can get
acceptably tight lines _without_
resorting to using hyphenation...
Dmitri Minaev on March 1, 2009 5:39 AM:
sorry for the typo:
...And no, it does not need ­ to do that.
Hadrien Gardeur on March 1, 2009 9:50 AM:
Stanza can hyphenate any book, and you can select the hyphenation patterns based on the language.
Unfortunately, it's not a default option, you have to turn it on in the settings.
With books where there's proper metadata though, Stanza could easily turn this option on automatically.
CSS3 has support for hyphenation, I wrote a blog post about hyphenation and EPUB almost a year ago: http://blog.feedbooks.com/?p=50
Lee on March 1, 2009 11:43 AM:
I'm struggling with hyphenation at the moment as I prepare my new novel for online serialisation, so I was glad to read Bringhurst's rules - can't afford to buy a copy just yet - and particularly appreciated 2.4.11!
You might want to read the Feedbooks blog post about justification and hyphenation:
Adrian Toll on March 1, 2009 12:20 PM:
I find the idea of hyphenation and justification interesting, and will look out for this more as I read, particularly now I have an iPhone and Stanza. However, the thing that I personally notice more than anything is screen resolution. I struggle a bit to read things on a normal 72 dpi screen, and generally read hard copy if possible, despite being told by an economist friend of mine who reads lots of papers online that it just takes practice - although he also said that he recently bought the Sony eBook reader and hates it.
When I got my iPhone I put Helen DeWitt's fantastic Your Name Here on there with a view to possibly reading it on a long journey (it's a PDF, and has ragged line endings). To my surprise, despite the small screen, and despite the fact that you have to put your finger over an area of the screen to scroll (necessarily covering up some part of the text), I read 300 pages nonstop without feeling irritated by the form of presentation. The iPhone has a 160dpi screen - more than double a normal 72dpi screen (and therefore about five times more dots per square inch - 25,600 at 160dpi vs 5,184 at 72dpi).
When you provide digital files for hard copy printing they have to be 300dpi - the resolution that, I presume, most books are printed at. I really think that if screens had a higher resolution they'd be much, much easier to read. Why this is, I'm not too sure - although my background in Psychology makes me think that perhaps the brain has to do more work in interpreting the letters because they're subtly pixellated, like the extra effort involved in reading blurred text, which makes it feel more of a strain.
By the way, if you're using HTML markup, you can set a default document language, and then tags for excerpts in a foreign language within the overall text, so signalling this to an electronic device would be easy (although this doesn't necessarily make programming the actual hyphenation rules easy...): http://www.w3.org/TR/html401/struct/dirlang.html#h-8.1.2
Monica McCormick on March 2, 2009 1:08 PM:
Naive question alert: Have I missed something, or is there a powerful reason we don't have much ragged-right text on e-readers and the web? Wouldn't that be easier than hyphenation? And easier to read than loose justified lines?
bowerbird on March 2, 2009 6:08 PM:
here's an example, right here, with sophisticated users.
look at the blog entry that hadrien references above.
you'll see that, in it, he includes a quote from the wc3.
but if you read his quote, you might find the bug in it.
to save you the trouble of trotting all over the web,
i've summarized it in a graphic you can view here:
this is the kind of markup glitch that gets more likely
if we put complex things like hyphenation in the mix.
hadrien's error is related to .html entities, but this
all has to do with deviations from "keep it simple".
and, like i said, hadrien is a _sophisticated_ user!
the hassles are even worse for untrained people...
the technocrats _always_ have a solution to sell us,
the problem being their stuff is _never_ glitch-free.
we're already knee-deep in their mess, and they want
to keep selling us _more_ of their goldberg machines.
they push their stuff like wall street pushed bad loans.
it's time to re-tool, to invent simple stuff that works.
bowerbird on March 3, 2009 4:29 AM:
> Naive question alert: Have I missed something,
> or is there a powerful reason we don't have
> much ragged-right text on e-readers and the web?
the e-reader situation is still being shaken out,
but we have _lots_ of ragged-right on the _web_.
most of what you see on the web is ragged-right.
indeed, it's fairly rare to see things full-justified.
but i'm sure that, in the marketing material for
reader hardware, they use justified text because
they are targeting _p-book_ readers, who have
been conditioned to always expect justified text.
ragged-right would elicit a "_that's_ not a book!"
and much as i'd like to think people had a choice
to turn off justification, i just don't know if it's so.
(any kindle or sony users care to chime in here?)
and if you're reading a .pdf, it will depend upon
the setting chosen by the _creator_ of the .pdf,
not the _reader_. (which, yes, is bass-ackward;
who cares what the preference of the creator is?)
and i bet it's that way with other formats too...
> Wouldn't that be easier than hyphenation?
yes. ragged-right is much easier to render.
hyphenation is very difficult to do (correctly).
but on-the-fly full-justification isn't that hard.
no, it's not nearly as simple as ragged-right,
because -- to make it look reasonably nice --
you must compute breaks using "multi-line",
which factors every line in the paragraph, not
the simpler "will the next word fit on this line?"
commonly used while figuring ragged-right...
plus, pure _display_speed_ of ragged-right is
faster than full-justified text, because you can
render it by _lines_ instead of _word-by-word_.
so computation _and_ display are both slower.
but full-justification _can_ be done currently,
with the hardware in our current infrastructure.
when you throw hyphenation into the mix too,
though, you're starting to strain the resources.
if -- like stanza -- you chop a book into pieces,
you can do computation for one of the _pieces_
fast enough that it won't push people's patience.
but if you need to re-compute the entire book
-- because, for example, the person changed
fontsize, or went from portrait to landscape --
then you're going to cause people to bail out...
(e-reader on iphone takes forever to paginate.)
hyphenation also has other flaws besides sloth.
specifically, sometimes the results are "not good".
if it was just slow, that would be one thing, since
it might be worth it to some people, even if slow.
but when it's slow _and_ it's bad? not worth it...
pay attention to the fact that the people who'll
tell you "yeah, computers can do it, look at tex"
are pointing to a _batch_ program, not real-time.
moreover, sometimes tex just plain gives up,
with a "this paragraph cannot work; rewrite!"
you can't do that in a real-time environment...
and finally, be _very_wary_ of statements like
"program x supports y". it's appallingly easy
to make a tick-mark on a feature-list with a
functionality that doesn't serve the purpose...
you need to examine those claims in real-life,
to make sure the objective is actually achieved.
> Wouldn't that be easier than hyphenation?
> And easier to read than loose justified line
ragged-right is easier to read than _loose_ lines.
but if you can find a way to avoid the loose lines?
some people will say full-justified with tight lines
is easier to read than ragged-right. indeed, that's
precisely what book-designers have said all along,
which is why they've always done full-justification,
even taking on the pain of hyphenation to get it...
(believe me, hyphenation has always been a pain
especially when they had no computers to do it.)
so that seems to be the _conventional_ answer...
but it sure wouldn't surprise me -- not one bit --
if you said _you_ find ragged-right easier to read.
i'm sure that a lot of people do. i'm one of them.
i don't care what the "experts" tell me. i know me.
and i care about _me,_ not "the average person"...
so how should we reply?
well, i say it's impossible to answer such questions.
and (more importantly) unnecessary.
are serif fonts easier to read than sans-serif fonts?
is tight leading easier to read than "open" leading?
are block paragraphs easier to read than indented?
what line-length is the easiest for people to read?
is it merely a function of the line-length, or does it
depend on the character-count, or the word-count?
geez. i don't know.
and immense individual differences in the matters
mean that any answers that we _did_ come up with
would have limited applicability... so why bother?
in the past, when book economics required large
press-runs, so every copy ended up _identical,_
then yes, it made sense to answer the questions,
so that every-identical-copy was as easy to read
as it could possibly be _for_the_average_person_.
but with an e-book? make it the way you want it.
and hard-copy? print-on-demand how you like...
now there's no reason every copy must be the same.
every copy can be tailored to a reader's preferences.
you want full-justified text, hyphenated, with a
sans-serif font (verdana!), indented paragraphs,
(.4-inch please), a 10-word average line-length,
3.3 points leading between 12.6-point 80% black
body-text (and 55% red blockquotes with .2-inch
indent on both sides and a 10% green back-tint),
on a creamy background with 1.1-inch margins,
widows and orphans _strictly_ controlled please,
headers bold, brown (yes brown!), and 18-point
(but copy-fit into a 3.3-inch-high header-box),
the first line of each chapter set with a drop-cap
and then the first 3 words in a small-caps serif,
footnotes displayed in a pop-up if/when clicked,
with italicized captions right-justified on photos,
table-cells outlined by 33% blue dashed borders,
and links that _blink_pink_ when you hover over?
fine. knock yourself out. that's your new default,
which you could (of course) change on any book,
if you decide that particular book needs changing.
or heck, you can use the author's specifications...
or the publisher's. or your next-door neighbor's.
the point is, you should be able to customize _all_
these variables, and more, to your heart's desire...
and an e-book program that won't let you do that
-- with an interface that makes it _fun_ to use! --
isn't worth its salt, and you should throw it away...
and monica? it has been a pleasure, so if you have
any more "naive" questions, please feel free to ask.
Hadrien Gardeur on March 3, 2009 7:37 AM:
Nice catch bowerbird ! In fact, this used to be displayed the right way, it was probably screwed up while updating Wordpress or some sanitization of the code while editing the post.
I'm for a simple solution to this problem too, and I don't think that soft hyphens throughout the whole text would be an elegant solution. It would put too much burden on the content provider.
From my point of view, reading systems should have default hyphenation patterns and select the right one based on the dc:language of the book.
Embedded patterns in the container of the book, or soft-hyphens should be required only for very specific books (technical books for example).
@Monica: True, the user should always be able to select between ragged right and justified. I hate ragged right myself (feels like reading on a screen instead of a book) but we need some flexibility on the user's end.
A.K. on March 3, 2009 1:35 PM:
I am also very naive re: the tech end of all this. But, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence from my practise as a neuropsychologist to suggest that people with even mild dyslexia find it almost impossible to read right justified text in which the word spacing is inconsistent: whether on a screen or in printed material. Things that make the reading experience very difficult for dyslexics tend to also make it uncomfortable for the rest of us. Attention to kerning, using beautiful and legible fonts and other aspects of old-school typesetting will be key to wider acceptance of Kindle, etc... For now, I think the ergonomics issues are far from being resolved. Nothing compares to reading a beautifully printed book designed by someone well versed in typography.
Alain Pierrot on March 6, 2009 3:07 AM:
Hyphenation is also useful to display a good (readable) ragged right. It is not strictly tied to justification.
About users' choices: I was taught years ago that books for younger children, still acquiring reading skills, should be ragged right, as long as the readers needed to check their understanding of words through silently spelling the different characters.
But that later, efficient reading was obtained through a more global perception of the sentences, the eyes even skipping some words. And that, at that stage, proportional spacing, justification were a better solution.
Any recent works or references about this theory?
Lee on March 6, 2009 1:25 PM:
Arghh, bowerbird & Hadrien, so please just tell me, in simple terms, what I'm supposed to do! I'd rather spend my time worrying about the writing than the hyphens.
Zarkov on March 6, 2009 6:06 PM:
By the way, ragged-right is surprisingly demanding to get right if you want a result of high typographical quality. If you have the computing power and a reliable method for hyphenation, it's usually easier to get good results with hyphenated justified text. If you don't care whether your right margin has huge white bights or zigs back and forth with every line, the choice is easy, of course.
bowerbird on March 6, 2009 6:46 PM:
> Hyphenation is also useful to display a good (readable)
> ragged right. It is not strictly tied to justification.
you can get a good rag without hyphenation,
by using one of the multi-line methodologies,
with only an occasional bad line as an exception.
in english, anyway. other languages can be thorny,
but i haven't tackled them in a systematic manner...
look at the "toc" blog over at o'reilly next week,
where i will be showing solid examples of this...
> efficient reading was obtained through a
> more global perception of the sentences,
> the eyes even skipping some words. And that,
> at that stage, proportional spacing,
> justification were a better solution.
i don't know how "proportional spacing" got in here.
justification has been thought, over the years, to be
conducive to readability. (solved other problems too,
like bleedthrough on thinner paper, but ignore that.)
the main reason for justification is better readability.
as i read the "experts", that is now in some question.
(they think consistent word-spacing is more valuable.
and for some, e.g., with autistics, they might be true.)
but nobody has much data, let alone convincing data.
i don't think anybody would suggest hyphenation
_helps_ readability, over and above justification...
the best you could argue is that "it doesn't hurt"...
(and i certainly wouldn't quibble with that position.)
whatever the past, justification is "standard" for books.
if you don't justify the text, it won't "look like a book"...
so if it's important that your book "looks like a book",
you're going to decide that you have to do justification.
but as i said, none of this really matters at all any more.
that's because an e-book viewer-app should allow users
to toggle justification according to their own preference.
further, print-on-demand will do the same for hard-copy.
if you ran an experiment comparing justified versus not,
you'd probably find very few difference between groups,
and probably _none_ that were statistically significant...
but if you asked people for their preference on justification,
then assigned them to experimental groups where they got
_either_ their _preferred_ type or their _non-preferred_ type,
i'd bet you get differences, perhaps not on reading _speed_
or _retention_, but on their self-reports of reading _comfort_.
same with fonts. serif versus non-serif? very little difference.
but preferred versus not-preferred? big, significant difference.
if you looked at _specific_ fonts, you might find differences...
even significant differences. (some fonts are difficult to read.)
but preferred versus non-preferred fonts? _huge_ differences.
every copy of every book doesn't have to look the same!
we can now customize each one to the reader's preference.
take advantage of this new possibility!
p.s. lee, spend your time writing, not doing any layout.
when your writing is finished, completely finished, send me
a copy of the file and i'll lay it out for you, free of charge...
if you like the layout, you can keep it. if not, go from there.
Lee on March 7, 2009 5:01 AM:
Thanks, bowerbird. I intend to take you up on the offer - quite soon, in fact! I hope you don't regret it...
Derek W Pearce on March 10, 2009 12:55 PM:
I write as a full time creative writer whose background is 35 years in the computer industry. What concerns me most about this discussion is just how much many contributors are bringing constraints and concepts and even ergonomics from the paper publishing world and applying them to the new world of text. So many of the constraints that movable type imposed on book designers and typesetters are fundamental to the metal technologies essential to the production of text on paper but have no relevance in a world of electrons and pixels.
When mankind tried to use the technology of birds to take to the air he failed time and again. When he studied the physics of flight he found a different way that was suited to his species. The same is true for electronic text. We need to understand the fundamentals of this new medium and not assume that those that we have learned from paper publishing are apposite.
It occurs to me for example that the angle of optical incidence when reading paper books is different for screen based reading. Focal length is definitely different - I have different prescriptions for intense screen work and reading paper based books.Contrast is often overlooked as being a key issue - ink on paper has an intrinsically higher contrast than can easily be produced on screen even ink on pulp paper has better contrast than does the average screen.
As far as typefaces are concerned I would never dream of using a serif font on a text intended for screen display - remember that serifs were invented to stop ink puddling on letter forms - sans is cleaner so long as it is not anti-aliased and that it is a face designed for screen. I do not believe that many of the traditional print faces work well in pixels.
The original discussion? Hyphenation? It is, and always has been, an abomination. It is a kludge and one that we should no longer need. If typefaces were designed so that each had a range of character widths for each letter at each size (micro variances) then combined with micro-kerning the need for hyphenation should be all but entirely avoidable. Admittedly this will require screen definitions above 72 dpi but it is only by looking forward to what pixels can do that metal type cannot will we genuinely begin to define the future of the book
bowerbird on March 11, 2009 8:11 PM:
i'd welcome your participation in dialog about
the relevance of print typography to e-books.
for instance, your idea on variable char-widths
shows that you are able to cast aside the past...
but there's a point i'll relate in response to
this comment you made now, which is that
much of the time, for the foreseeable future,
we'll make books for _both_ print and screen.
out of necessity.
specifically, we will create electronic-books,
but fully expect some people will print them.
no, not the "i have to print out any e-book
because i can't stand to read from a screen",
but rather "this book is so important to me
that i _need_ to have my own physical copy."
the idea that e-books mean that we have
given up on paper-books, and just won't
make any, is as ridiculous as the idea that
computers would create a "paperless" office.
offices today are using more paper than ever!
what e-books mean is that we will soon have
lots more books than we had before. _lots!_
lots and lots! the rise will be truly staggering.
because the cost of making an e-book is zero!
i expect we will have 10 times as many books...
and that's conservative. could be 50-100 times.
couple that with the decreasing price of p.o.d.,
and we will _continue_ to have lots of p-books.
even if we only print 10% of the books we have
-- heck, even if we only print _1%_ of them --
we will still have a lot of p-books. lots and lots.
and everyone -- authors and readers alike --
will want those p-books to look "professional",
to look like the p-books that we grew up with,
especially since we only print out books we love!
so most of the p-book typographic conventions
-- the ones that make sense anyway -- will stay.
Derek W Pearce on March 12, 2009 12:52 PM:
bowerbird - thanx for responding and no I do not expect p-books to disappear any time soon - it's not impossible (once the current generation of p-book readers dies out) but it's not imminent.
However, please take note: as I said in my original post I am a creative writer and it is a simple fact that very few of my works could be produced as p-books - it's not entirely deliberate more a by-product of the development of 21st century literature. In fact several of the popular e-book formats cannot support the structure I am using and will continue to use. Surely I am not alone - just on the leading edge mayhap.
P-book typography has much to offer and p-book design likewise but we ought to realise that e-book to p-book conversion is likely to involve both a true conversion and a compromise. We should not compromise what we do in order to ease that conversion.
As to the idea bruited here that reader control of the look and feel of a "book" is a univerally good idea I have but ne thing to say "Phooey". The look of a text is part of my design for the work in the same way as the content and context. I cannot concieve of Picasso or Monet having the viewer change the brushstrokes or colour palette of their works with anything other than justifiable horror. Me too
bowerbird on March 12, 2009 6:31 PM:
ok, i finally put the first draft of my .pdf up:
to inform people here, this is a book that was
put out by o'reilly -- they used it to demo an
espresso print-on-demand machine at their
recent "toc" conference, by printing copies
on-the-spot to hand out to the attendees --
so i used this actual text from an actual book
so as not to bias my experiment. (but i had to
scramble the text due to copyright concerns,
so all lowercase vowels have been swapped.)
here's the text-file which created the .pdf:
and here's how you access the web-version:
for a specific page, change the number in the u.r.l.:
the fact that every page has a unique u.r.l.
allows us to reference any page in particular,
but if you want to talk about a specific page,
do not include the u.r.l. in your comment...
just tell us the _page-number_, and we can
ascertain the u.r.l. from that, meaning that
your comment won't have to await approval
after its hold-up by the (stupid) spam filter
merely because it contained a link...
this .pdf has _lots_ of ugly aspects, some
of which are intentional, as it is "the base",
from which will spring improved iterations.
but there's no need to detail the problems,
because i can see them too. however, if it
will make you feel better to attack the thing,
go right ahead and be my guest... :+)
(but i'll start by saying the bottom-balancing
was a shipwreck here, so no fair saying that.)
the thing that you _should_ comment on
-- the reason that i mention this here --
is whether the various tricks i have used
to _allow_justification_ of the body-text
_without_ resorting to use of hyphenation
worked to eliminate excessive loose lines.
to sum up, are there too many loose lines?
p.s. the main "trick" i used was to use a
multi-line method for breaking the lines,
which isn't really a trick at all. in addition,
i did some other things. extra credit if you
can tell me what those other things were...
bowerbird on March 13, 2009 12:24 PM:
> very few of my works could be produced as p-books -
> it's not entirely deliberate more a by-product of
> the development of 21st century literature.
then you're not an _author,_ derek, you're an _artist_... :+)
i'm a performance poet myself, so print can't hold me... ;+)
but there are still a lot of just-plain-text authors out there...
> In fact several of the popular e-book formats cannot
> support the structure I am using and will continue to use.
> Surely I am not alone - just on the leading edge mayhap.
i eat "popular e-book formats" for breakfast, so shortcomings
in those things don't surprise me. what kinda stuff do you do?
i've been observing computer-based literary experimentation
-- and doing some of it myself -- back to my osborne 1 days,
so i can tell you (but you probably don't need me to tell you)
the general public just ain't ready for anything new quite yet.
but let me know what you do, and how you're doing it, and
let's see if i can incorporate presentation of it into my tools.
or, more to the point, how do _you_ intend to convey it?
> P-book typography has much to offer
> and p-book design likewise but
> we ought to realise that e-book to p-book conversion is
> likely to involve both a true conversion and a compromise.
i don't think too much about "e-book to p-book conversion".
i am more than willing to grant that, for new electronic molds,
a "print-out" might be severely compromised. fine. such is life.
a movie is more than a collection of still photographs, even if
a movie is nothing more than a collection of still photographs,
if you catch my drift. a t.v. show on the radio just won't work.
on the other hand, i've seen enough _failed_experimentation_
in the "electronic literature organization" that i also know that
there is a timelessness in the nature of "story around campfire"
that hundreds of years of codex refinement now capture nicely.
is it the only way to tell a story? heavens no, don't be ridiculous.
but does it work relatively well? yes, in fact it works _superbly_.
more to the point, we have _500_ years worth of paper-books...
books are the vehicle that have brought us from the middle ages
through the space age and ushered us into the information age.
that's a lot of cultural legacy we must put in our memory-banks.
(and have i mentioned lately how _awesome_ it is that you can
input a longish string of text into a search engine and find out
-- in seconds -- precisely what document contains that text?
we haven't even begun to tap into the power that delivers to us.
all our reference-pointing mechanisms of the past? outdated!)
so i'm more interested in "p-book to e-book conversion";
there's a lot riding on our ability to leak as little as possible.
> The look of a text is part of my design for the work
> in the same way as the content and context.
then you simply cannot give people your text _as_ text,
because the one thing we _know_ they'll do in the future
is change it every which way to sunday. convert to curves.
and as for changing the brushstrokes and the color palette?
you can kiss that one goodbye forever. you can't control it.
if you even try, the audience will simply walk away from you.
passive art recipients are an anachronism, and good riddance!
bowerbird on March 13, 2009 12:25 PM:
hey, administrators, one of my comments here is
caught in your spam filter. could you free it please?
Derek W Pearce on March 14, 2009 9:35 AM:
bowerbird - thanks for the thought that you have clearly exercised on my last post - I would gladly clear up some your misunderstanding vis a vis my intent and method (my fault I fear) and continue in similar vein but this is not the place to do it. Do you have another locale that might fit better with this digressive/transgressive trajectory?
PS think Barthes when I use the word text and not ASCII or Unicode - in fact when I write or speak think French and not English thoery
Lisa Spangenberg on May 6, 2009 2:46 PM:
Stanza, and eReader, and every iPhone and Palm e-reading application I've ever tried allow the user to set justification and other text preferences.
If you actually look at users using e-readers, and other text applications without interacting with them or providing guidance, you will note astonishingly high numbers of them think full justifications is a Very Good Thing. Keep in mind that typesetting is not generally known about as an art, that the average user with a word processor thinks that's all there is to writing a book. You sit down and type, and then it maybe gets proofread (which is what they think editors *do*) and then it's off to the printer. This information lacuna is why so very many otherwise intelligent people think Booklocker and iUniverse and Booksurge are "publishers."
And it's much much worse with e-books, because they don't even have to be printed; much simpler then, and cheaper too . . . and it's often very difficult to convince people that no, that's not how it works.
Most people have no concept, at all, of kerning, for instance, or how much difference good type design and typesetting make to the readibility, and the ability to drive narrative lust and "get lost" in a book.
Joshua Gay on July 13, 2009 3:34 PM:
At the upcoming TUG 2009 conference, Kaveh Bazargan will have a talk entitled "TeX as an ebook reader." The description reads, "An important advantage of ebook readers is their ability to modify text size and page orientation, for the most comfortable reading configuration. The ebook reader has to reformat the text on the fly and with minimum delay. Current ebook readers (e.g. Stanza on the iPhone) can do this reformatting, but cannot deal with complicated text such as mathematics. We have been experimenting with using TeX as the formatting engine. Of course it can handle complex mathematics, but it also creates the best line breaks of any ebook reader, e.g. Stanza. We will report our experiments with using TeX as an ebook reader on the iPhone."
Bill Rabbit on December 14, 2009 1:33 AM:
As one of the original Kindle's biggest fans and an owner for over a year, I can speak to the Kindle from two perspectives--the benefits of owning a Kindle, and Kindle 2 improvements (as I've now had it for half a day)
The benefits of owning a Kindle (these do not change)
- Absolutely, Jeff Bezos is right that the Kindle 'disappears' as you read it...as I read other reviews (and non-user critiques) about the Kindle, this point is often lost. Once you have the Kindle in your hands, you forget everything and become immersed in the content of what you're reading. Isn't that really the whole point?
- I read more now that I have my Kindle, 10 years out of college than I did when I was in school, and I really enjoy it. Books look a lot less intimidating when they aren't sitting on your bookshelf and 3 inches thick. I recently finished Team of Rivals, and I am sure that if I had to read it in book form, I would never have gotten through it because it would have felt so intimidating.
- Heft and weight is a complete non-issue with the Kindle. I like to read in odd positions (in bed, on the couch, on a plane, poolside, shifting around in a lounge chair) and I've always had trouble with real books because unless you are in the absolute middle of the book, it always is weighted to one side or another and frankly, my arm and pinkie finger gets tired holding it up. The Kindle is balanced and portable, and entirely usable in any situation.
- I can be in the middle of a lot of different books at once...not much more to say here. You never run out of space on the Kindle, and though it may be a little bit hard to maneuver around a lot of books in your library, it's still better to have access to all your books at any time.
- I now read newspapers. I always found physical newspapers to be clumsy and take up too much space to actually subscribe to. They are great for short content pieces, but terrible for reading in transit because the pages are so big. I also read some articles on my BlackBerry, but find myself scrolling a lot and waiting a long time for page loads. On the Kindle, you have wireless delivery, easy navigation, no ads, no need to flip to page D17 and find the place where you left off. You also have a searchable/annoted/bookmarked archive of all your newspaper articles if you ever need to find something again.
- All of these things can probably be accomplished with any eBook reader. The difference with the Kindle is that you have wireless delivery of content. This means, literally, that I can be sitting on the plane, start talking about what good books the guy sitting next to me has read recently, look it up on my Kindle, read the reviews and download it before the rest of the passengers have boarded and the plane doors close. This has happened.
- My biggest complaint, which I'm sure will be addressed in due course is that the entire wireless benefit does not exist outside of the US. I have taken my Kindle to Canada, Mexico and China, and I found that I had to (gasp), decide what I wanted to have on my Kindle before I left the US. Foreign language support would also be a plus, but again, I see why this might come later.
Now, onto improvements with the Kindle 2
- There are the obvious ones: sleeker look and feel (it feels solid in your hands), sharper screen, no longer accidentally depressing the next page button by accident and having to find your place in the book again...you can read about these from various sources)
- The 5-way button, though a bit small, allows you to select left and right, and not just up and down like the original version. This is very helpful when you want to select and highlight.
- There are now two layers of interaction...before when you were reading a paper, you could only go back to the previous screen to select the next article. Now, there is an option at the bottom of the screen to skip to the next article when you tire of the current one.
- Page loads are much faster. I can feel that the delay between pages is much less. Only issue is I need to recalibrate now--in general, I try to anticipate how much time it will take the next page to load, and when I'm two lines from the bottom, I would hit the next page button. Now I need to push the button later.
- Text to speech is cloogey, but fun. I'm not sure how useful this will end up being. I tried to have the voice read the user's manual to me and it paused at commas and periods, but skipped right over hard returns. It also scrolled the page as it was reading, so if you are trying learn English and don't mind developing a metallic accent, it could really help. :-) You can also choose, male/female and speed. I think this could be a nice feature, though probably won't be using it all the time.
- Managing your books is much easier. It's easy to see what is in your archive and re-download onto the Kindle. Also easy to delete and manage your books. That 5-way button is magical...though a bit unintuitive--you need to train yourself to think that there might be something useful if you scroll to the right.
- Dictionary is improved. Now you can highlight a word and it automatically gives you a definition at the bottom of the screen. It also lets you look up words (that are not in the text), which is an improvement since the last version.
I'm sure there are still a bunch of things that I haven't yet discovered about the Kindle 2. I don't really bookmark/annotate/highlight that much, but for those who do, I think this has also been improved upon.
Overall, the Kindle is an amazing product. It did the basics well in the original model, the Kindle 2 has improved on a lot of dimensions, and I look forward to seeing what new bells and whistles are still to come.
If you are considering buying one, and need to see before you order, find someone in your city who has one and can show you. There is now a special board for this on Amazon. Kindle owners (at least this one), are always happy to talk about it, and you will be delighted with the screen and the possibilities in such a compact package.