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The Uncanny X-book: ebooks, design and digital possibility

The following post was first published as part of Overland’s annual subscriberthon, a mini-festival of posts, prizes and debate that’s happening all this week on the Overland site. If you read the Overland blog (and if you don’t you should) perhaps the time’s come to take out a subscription, and do your part to support Australia’s thought-provoking literary magazine.

When people ask about the design of a book, they’re usually talking about the cover. But as any writer knows, choosing a cover is only one of a whole series of invisible questions involved in transforming a manuscript into a book. Some of these questions – paper stock for instance – probably seem trivial to outsiders, but along with more obviously significant questions about design and typography they all play their part in shaping the way a reader experiences a text.

Over the past few decades, as public interest in design has grown, many publishers, especially American publishers, have chosen to foreground some of these decisions, usually by running notes at the back of books about the font employed and its history. I’m not a font person, but I have to confess to at least a passing interest in knowing that the font a book I’m reading uses is a variant of a font developed in the 17th century, or that its designer was an atheist famous for his Bibles, or a student of Greek Humanist letter-forms.

Nor are these decisions trivial. Good design matters in books as much as it does in cars, or furniture, or architecture, not just by mediating and shaping our relationship with the text, but as an integral part of the meaning of that text.

All of which makes the decision by the publishing industry to adopt the EPUB format as standard an interesting one. For the uninitiated, EPUB (short for electronic publication) is specifically designed to handle reflowable content, and creates a standard for a number of important matters such as metadata.

But while EPUB also allows the publisher to optimise the content for display on particular devices, by being both reflowable and limited by the fonts available on particular devices it also means all the most important decisions about how an ebook’s design are being made the designers of the device (or application) one uses to read it rather than its publisher.

It’s possible many people will think I’m being finicky here, but this seems to me to be a real issue, not least because most of the devices render books in such an ugly fashion. Despite the excellence of much of their design, Apple’s iBooks application limits the reader to a small selection of fonts, none of which are particularly well-suited to on-screen reading. To  my mind the Kindle is even worse: not only is the screen too small to hold enough text (I read fast, and find it difficult to find my rhythm when I’m constantly turning the page) but the black-screen page-turn feature is actively hideous and distracting. And while I actually rather like the Kobo, despite its small screen and hopelessly slow page refresh speed, that’s got more to do with its pleasingly minimal styling and uncluttered display than its attention to typographical detail.

There are exceptions of course. I did a fair bit of my research for the old, out-of-copyright parts of The Penguin Book of the Ocean on Google Books, which displays searchable scanned copies of the physical book, many of which can be viewed as pdfs on the iPad and other pdf-capable ereader applications. And while reading a scanned copy of a physical book on a screen isn’t quite the same as optimising the design for the device at least doesn’t make the text look worse than the original. And there are dedicated magazine and publisher applications which deliver formatted content to the iPad and other devices. But for the most part my response to ebooks as they currently stand is a little like my attitude to music: if I can buy a FLAC or lossless version of an album I’ll do it, but if I’m offered a choice between buying a lossy version on iTunes and a CD, I’ll buy the CD every time.

I’m not the first to pick up on this point, of course; Jessica Au asked some similar questions about ebooks and beauty over at Spike earlier this year. And for a slightly different perspective to mine I’d also recommend reading one of the pieces she links to, Craig Mod’s ‘Books in the Age of the iPad’. But I think it’s worth noting how fantastically well iPads handle information optimised for the web, where publishers have considerably more (though not total) control over how information is displayed, and how tawdry and ugly ebooks look. Certainly I find reading long-form journalism on an iPad considerably easier than reading it on a screen, but I still struggle to enjoy the experience of reading a book in iBooks.

But it seems to me to segue into another, larger question about what happens to books as they transition to digital. One of the enduring oddities of the ebook debate is the notion technology is somehow neutral. The assumption seems to be that books are books, and where and how you read them is somehow irrelevant.

In part this is an argument about the material culture of the book, and the material culture of the tablet computer or ereader, and about the complex web of relationships and assumptions that shape our experience of text on a page and text on a screen. But it’s also about the way the medium shapes the message, and about the way our desire to replicate an old technology with a new one reveals a failure to come to grips with the real possibilities of the new. Think for a moment about the silly page-turning animations ereaders insist on inserting: aren’t they really the textual equivalent of curtains on a television? Indeed why do we need to retain the notion of the “page” at all? Why can’t text just continue down as we read, like a scroll? And if it did, what would this do to the metaphors and devices we use to shape and organise information, the chapters and sections of the analog world?

Part of the problem is the fact that codex books feel so natural to us we forget they are themselves a technology. An extremely successful one to be sure (indeed if one wanted a test of true technological success it might well be precisely this capacity to disappear, to be subsumed and naturalised into the culture). And like any technology they use us just as we use them, shaping not just the way we consume information but the way we think. Many of our important narrative forms – the novel, for instance, or narrative non-fiction – are forms which depend in fundamental ways on the physical nature of the codex book, and its emphasis upon linearity, closure, as well as the more subtle questions about page length and internal organisation I alluded to above.

This question is usually framed as one about literary form, a David Shieldsesque argument against the hegemony of the unifying narrative. But I’d suggest we need to take it a step further. Because as I’ve said before, if we’re reading books on a device that can handle video and sound, how long will it be before publishers and creators start taking advantage of those possibilities?

I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is a conversation that was had at some length about the possibilities of multimedia and interactive narratives in the 1990s, and that most of the hype then came to naught (or, to be fair, ended up being subsumed into the development of video games). And speaking as a reader and a writer I have to confess I find it a little difficult to see how forms like the novel can be usefully retrofitted with video and sound (though applications like the augmented ebook edition of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which comes complete with genealogical and historical information might be one possibility). But by the same token it’s relatively easy to see how things like children’s books and less text-based forms can be reimagined to take advantage of the possibilities of the technology (something that’s already happening).

In a way one can see something similar happening to the physical book, which is itself an increasingly mutable object, lavishly designed and packaged and sometimes barely recognisable as a book. Again that’s a process that’s being driven by changing technology, not just the rise and rise of desktop publishing, but the growing sophistication and accessibility of print-on-demand.

But I think it also makes it necessary to question some of the assumptions underpinning what ebooks are, and what they mean for literary culture and publishing more generally. Because while I’m less convinced than I was a year or two ago that long-form narratives like the novel and narrative non-fiction are going to go the way of the dinosaurs, I do think they’ll change, and that just as the novel evolved to take advantage of the codex book new forms will evolve to take advantage of tablets and ereaders. The rise and rise of the graphic novel, and its success in a digital environment is probably one example of what’s coming, but I suspect it’s probably just the first of a whole series of experiments and mutations of literary form we’ll see in years to come. What they’ll be, what sense we’ll make of them I’m not sure, but I think there’s little doubt they’re coming.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Think for a moment about the silly page-turning animations ereaders insist on inserting: aren’t they really the textual equivalent of curtains on a television? Indeed why do we need to retain the notion of the “page” at all? Why can’t text just continue down as we read, like a scroll?

    We painted our telly gold and put red curtains on it. So I have no objections to this development in the e-book world…

    November 22, 2010
    • But do you watch it with opera glasses?

      November 22, 2010
      • That’s a good suggestion for future viewing purposes. I hardly watch shows on it these days any more, actually, just bask in the nimbus of the gold and the red velveteen curtains.

        November 23, 2010
  2. All of these questions were on our mind when designing Five Wounds, which was (in part) intended as a contribution to this debate.

    Plus, I’m currently working on a graphic novel with Dan Hallett, which will (in part) be structured as a continuous scroll, rather than a series of panels, on the model of the Bayeux Tapestry.

    November 22, 2010
  3. Susan Lever #

    Thanks for the hints re e-books. This is probably a crank thing with me, but I find that Australian novels are published in increasingly large sizes with lots of space on each page, so that Kim Scott’s latest takes 3 times as many pages as a 1970s Penguin would have, and a third as many as the Toibin I’ve just read–or the Roth. It makes me feel like I’m in primary school, or considered visually impaired. It makes the book physically too large for my handbag (it’s squashed from being put there). The Ballad of Desmond Kale is a brick of a book–but needn’t have been with some adult spacing of the text. I think the e-books thing may have led to this OVER designing–maybe by people who don’t read a lot (ie on trains, in waiting rooms etc). It really is one of the reasons I’ve interrupted my reading of the Scott–and certainly made a difference to my students at ADFA, who had to read between activities (and needed a small, portable book).

    November 29, 2010

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