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and to realize that characteristics that you thought defined a medium (like page turning) are nothing more than outdated uses of old constraints.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: