New books and old

Monday 17 May 2010This is over 13 years old. Be careful.

This is a fascinating time. We’re in the midst of a transformation of book technology, from analog to digital. While everyone moans and wails about the downfall of the newspaper, and the book companies do battle with the e-reader manufacturers, I’m interested just to see what happens to the technology of reading.

Aegir Hallmundur writes intelligently On Turning The Page, discussing the absurd lengths digital books will go to slavishly mimic one aspect of printed books (page turning), while simultaneously ignoring other more important aspects (hyphenation). I’m a proponent of hyphenation, and am astounded that so many e-readers completely ignore it. Hyphenation isn’t hard to do, and greatly improves the reading experience, so why don’t e-readers implement it?

Meanwhile the fancy page-turning animations get center stage. Perhaps it’s because people notice page turning. Hyphenation, like many aspects of good typography, fades into the background unnoticed, improving the mechanics of reading without drawing attention to itself.

It’s often true that new technology starts out by mimicking the old. It takes a while to figure out the ideal use of new possibilities, and to realize that characteristics that you thought defined a medium (like page turning) are nothing more than outdated uses of old constraints.

The iPad is just the latest e-reader to get scrutinized. For some reason, even Apple, with its Olympus-level design culture, has skipped some of the basic details of making a good reading experience.

Making books is a centuries-old tradition, and much has been learned about how to do it well. Just because we’re on the cusp of a revolution in that endeavor doesn’t mean that all of the old learning should be forgotten.

Just to cleanse your palate, here’s a video of a modern craftsman making books the old-fashioned way:


While better justification algorithms would certainly be good, I don't see why hyphenation needs to be done by electronic readers at all; there's no paper to save by compressing the text, and hyphenation slows reading speed a bit. (I once started implementing hyphenation for the Lynx web browser, and then stopped when I realized it was really pointless and made life more difficult for screen readers.)

Hyphenation makes sense for a printed book where the reduction in the number of lines of material will make the book a few pages shorter, and that can mean one fewer signature is required.
The point of hyphenation isn't to reduce the amount of paper a book requires. I doubt most books would get longer by even a page if all the hyphenated words were unhyphenated, since ends of paragraphs and chapters have so much buffering white space.

The point of hyphenation is to provide smaller chunks of texts so that justification has more break points, and so lines don't have to be over-stretched to justify. When words aren't hyphenated, you end up with loose lines with too much white space in them, and that slows reading by creating distracting patterns in the text.
E-readers seem like such a scam to me! I finally bought an electronic device last week for the express purpose of using it as an e-reader, an old used Palm 4 (Clie PEG-T650C) for about $20 and replaced the battery. I had been looking for something to e-read for over a year, but refused to pay the high prices e-readers and drm'ed devices asked. I mean, I was so embarrassed the last time I used my time machine to go back to the year 1989 to marvel at how far technology has advanced since then. I was expecting to laugh at all the silly people who didn't know what fantastic tech awaited them, but then I saw a kid with a Gameboy, a device which would still be around 20+ years later, commonly available for $10 or less used, powerful enough to serve as an e-reader. I see portable DVD players selling in the $40 to $100 range these days, significantly less than what e-readers are asking for.
I wouldn't say it's impossible, but the payoff simply isn't worth the amount of effort that would have to go into supporting dynamic hyphenation -- and that's just considering English text. Soft hyphens, such as what is used elsewhere, is a viable solution, but not one that I see happening. Publishers thus far have dragged their heels in fully embracing electronic formats. Some publishers can't even bring themselves to create proper contents, indexes, and chapter bookmarks, so they're certainly not going to spend the time to allocate an editor to the task of marking all multisyllable words with soft hyphens. I'm not saying it shouldn't be done, but it'll unfortunately be a while. We're hardly on the cusp of an eBook revolution. I love my Kindle and I've only bought eBooks for the past two years, but I'm not representative of the majority.
@James, why do you think hyphenation is so difficult? It's not, there's a public domain algorithm that works quite well, and doesn't involve either a massive dictionary or expensive computation.
While an algorithm may certainly help, natural languages can't be 100% accurately quantified in that fashion. English in particular is notorious for breaking its own rules. If you don't mind hyphenation being occasionally wrong, sure, but some people might find bad hyphenation or even misleading hyphenation (such as leg-ends) to be worse then no hyphenation at all. I can see a publisher using such a tool to aid in the process of adding soft hyphens, but on-the-fly hyphenation seems iffy.
I finally worked out how to get hyphenation on my Sony PRS-350. Go to, set up the custom PDF to be the size of the screen, choose your font (added bonus!), and download. Genius! The only problem with the site is that I can't work out how to donate. This is one service that I do not want to go away.

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