The modern reading experience

Mar 2017 · Design

Digital or analogue? It’s a common refrain in our current era of technological prowess — one that knowingly spawns countless debates and emphatic posts in defence of one over the other. I won’t say this post is any different, but only that each has a place that needs to be properly understood and meaningfully exploited.

Ebooks have major advantages over their paperback counterparts: portability, accessibility of content, and general convenience. You can go anywhere with an entire library in your hand, and do more with the content you have — cross-reference, lookup, search, copy, share, &c. All of these benefits contribute to our consumption of books as a raw informational exchange — words being read and converted into meaning.

There is also a uniformity of style between every book consumed on an e-reader. Reading a physics textbook feels the same as reading Moby Dick. While this may be a boon for accessibility — a user with fatiguing eyesight can set the text to be larger by default — the distinct experience had in reading a specific book is gone. The chemistry of an exact typeface chosen to be printed at a specific size on a certain kind of paper with carefully measured dimensions are replaced in favour of flexibility and user choice. The design of every book on an e-reader is in the hands of the consumer.

While this is a win for the cause of ‘democratic design’, ultimately this undermines the ability for a deep connection with a text to take place. The effect would be similar to a chef preparing an extensive 10-course dinner menu and handing over the cooked ingredients to diners who would plate each dish themselves in whatever fashion they prefer. The fullness of creative meaning behind the chef’s choices is stunted. When no consideration is possibly given to a distinct presentation of a text, the bond between author and reader is weakened, the experience diluted.

I find that in reading a physical copy of a book, the presence of the book itself starts to embody the experience. The way the margins are set, the size of the text, all contribute to the full reading experience as intended by the publisher (in some cases even the author herself). Sitting down and opening this book with its smooth cover and deckled edged pages means I’m reading this story. Even in the design of cheap trade paperbacks, with their typos and printing quirks, there is a memory of experience related to the form of that specific edition that is cultivated by spending time with it. It is this elevated emotional effect that books have that cannot be replaced. So while e-readers may bring quantity (of content) and convenience (of information aggregation and sharing), I’ll usually opt for quality. I don’t read that quickly anyway.

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