I’ve been mulling this topic over for some time now. I thought if:book might have scooped me the other day. They were lamenting the ugliness of electronic texts, especially on ebook reading devices like the Kindle, Sony Reader, and iPhone. The hyphen is what is lacking, in their view, to make these texts more pleasing to the eye. I think this is actually part of a larger issue: Most ebook readers are about “the text,” but not about typography. I would think that a printer, typographer, or book designer would have one look at these devices and shudder at the ugliness of the text. There is no design to texts on these devices. Or design has no role in how texts are displayed.
Printing has a 500-year history that has taught its practitioners a lot about how page, text, eye, and brain work best together. A font of a particular size will work best with a particular line length. The eye can follow best when there is a relationship between font and line. Typographers have worked out all kinds of issues with spacing, kerning, tracking, and leading. All of this is out the window with ebook readers. Sure you can control the size of the text on most readers. Some software, like Stanza, will even let you select from a few different fonts. But this is not really the same as looking at a book that has been designed by a master typographer. Our electronic texts don’t yet have the same qualities of legibility and readability. I think that may be one of the factors in the slow uptake of ebook readers. Lots of critics talk about the lack of aesthetics in readers, or about the “curl up with a book” factor. It may have more to do with the text than with the device.
This post is not about the superiority of printed over electronic text, although print IS superior at the moment. I think electronic will eventually win the day for any but the most specialized kind of text. What we need is an electronic text that has all the aesthetic qualities of print. But we also need an electronic text that is suited to the device’s display and lighting qualities and the human eye and brain. Our reading behavior on electronic devices will be different. Our electronic typography needs to get us to a place where we read effectively and with pleasure on our ebook readers. I think we have a long way to go to get there.
Postscript: I should add that some devices can view PDF files, which gives the designer some control over the text. But these too are not really quite the same as a printed text. The quality leaves something to be desired.