Books Versus Texts

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:21 AM

The New York Times has an interesting commentary on the problem with e-books.

When it comes to digital editions, the assumption seems to be that all books are created equal. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the mass migration from print to digital, we’re seeing a profusion of digital books — many of them out of copyright — that look new and even “HD,” but which may well have been supplanted by more accurate editions and better translations. We need a digital readers’ guide — a place readers can find out whether the book they’re about to download is the best available edition.

Interestingly, for all of their foibles, the major newspapers “get” this far more than book publishers and the e-book merchants. The iPad apps for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Financial Times reproduce much of the character that makes print more enjoyable for reading than a screen. They are a pleasure to read, much as a printed newspaper is.

On the other hand, the aesthetic problem with e-books is demonstrated by the issue of the free Project Gutenburg books available in iBooks. In my own browsing, I noticed that the critically acclaimed translation of Dante's Comedy was marked down on there because some thought it was foolish not to use the free Gutenburg text. Never mind the superior translation, superior typesetting is also important — too many public domain e-books are atrociously “typeset,” apparently forgetting that the layout — a book's “interface” — is a critical part of an enjoyable reading experience.

Re: Books Versus Texts
My only concern with typesetting is I have no choice. There are enough studies indicating the vast majority of humanity (in Western languages) benefit most from wide, lightly serifed fonts, moderate spacing and between 50-70 characters across. There are also issues with color and contrast, but those vary more among individuals. Given so few people seem to understand that, or care, I often convert most everything I actually want to read into plain text. That way I can display it according to my personal comfort. As you might expect, I tend to hate most commercial electronic book-reading systems. I have yet to see one which I find comfortable.
Posted by Ed Hurst - May 31, 2010 | 7:05 PM

Re: Books Versus Texts
Time to let go of paper publishing paradigms and put typesetting into the hands of the readers. Offer a source stylesheet if you like, but give me a reader that allows me to supersede the source style with my own. Accordance (Bible software for the Mac) and OliveTree's Bible Reader for handheld devices both allow this.
Posted by Caedmon - Jun 01, 2010 | 7:37 PM

Re: Books Versus Texts
I agree, Ed. Caedmon, I think Ed hits it on the head. My problem isn't so much whether it is customizable or not, but even take Accordance. As much as I love using it, it doesn't look as good as a print Bible. This is doubly true on literature. If you download a free copy of one of Shakespeare's plays from Gutenberg, the spacing and tabbing and such is atrocious, which lowers the reading experience significantly. Even if I could customize it (and I could, actually), I'd much rather get a decently typeset version so I can read rather than mess with stylesheets.
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Jun 02, 2010 | 2:34 AM

Re: Books Versus Texts
This is something I never really considered five or six years ago. The only reason I learned about this stuff was because I worked with a guy who did graphics and tech writing for Kinkos. He taught me a lot about the aesthetics of a page. I try to keep that in mind now as I'm starting to produce some gaming materials in electronic format. I also ask user's input. But back to literature: While I like the availability of Project Gutenberg, I have, on occasion found myself searching for an edition with a better typeset. Some I've found on Google Books. I like the idea of offering viewing options. For example, while I like serif type fonts for print, I find sans-serif easier to read on screen.
Posted by Jason P. Franklin - Jun 02, 2010 | 12:45 PM

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