Yes, reading on a Kindle is still “reading.” What you don’t get on a Kindle is “typography.”

I’m a fairly regular reader of Slate, and if there’s one thing you should never do on Slate, it’s mistake what’s in the headline for what’s in the article. Obviously the headline writers are playing a different game from the article writers. They’re interested in clicks, and if the headline is a little misleading, so be it.

But the headline on an article that’s been climbing the charts on Slate for the past day or so has really been rankling me: “Out of Touch: E-reading isn’t reading.” Really? That would suggest that if you’ve read an e-book, you haven’t really “read” it—you know, the way you would have if you had read the “real” book.

Now, Slate articles tend to have lots of different headlines. I imagine the headline-writers are experimenting, trying to figure out what will best catch the reader’s eye. The headline on Slate’s “Most Read” sidebar is a little different: “Reading on a Kindle is not the same as reading a book.” That’s a rather different proposition, and a fairly obvious one. It’s the difference between saying “Riding a motorcycle is not transportation” and “Riding a motorcycle is not the same as riding in a car.”

I’ve read the article, and I’d say neither headline actually captures what the article is about. If I was trying to write an honest (if rather dull) headline for the article, I’d write something like this: “The way we physically interact with narrative texts has changed over the centuries, and Kindles are a dramatically different way of interacting with narrative texts.”

The article’s author, Andrew Piper, is also attempting to make a slightly larger, subtle point that the physical experience of a text is an essential part of reading, but he doesn’t provide much evidence of how different reading technologies affect the meaning of what we are reading.

Piper talks a lot about the difference between pressing a button to turn a page and physically turning a page, and how both of those things are different from using a touch-screen to turn the page, but I have a hard time understanding how these differences affect the meaning of a printed text.

On the other hand, something that Piper doesn’t talk about at all really can have a significant impact on how we understand the meaning of a text. Let me give a concrete example, from a hilarious item that appeared two days ago in the New York Times. It’s the much-linked review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square:

When I first read the review, for a while I missed something that contributed significantly to the meaning of the article. It’s written as a letter to the restaurant’s proprietor, Guy Fieri. I missed it because of a typographical convention: Starting the first few words of an article in ALL CAPS. I mistook the “Guy Fieri” for a subhead, instead of a part of the first sentence of the article. Instead of seeing that the questions were directed to Fieri, I thought they were directed at me, the reader—which seemed a little odd, since most readers tend to read reviews before they decide to visit a restaurant. When I finally got it, I could see that the review was very funny, but for me the typography obscured the meaning of the article.

The Kindle faces a tougher typographical challenge. It’s designed to let the reader select the size of the type, and in many cases, even the typeface itself. All books must be shoehorned into its tiny, low-resolution screen, whether they are image-rich history texts or cheap romance novels. Though the device is now five years old, the basic model has changed very little. The screen is still the same size and resolution, and its e-ink is still limited to black and white (in fact, black and gray).

But the big problem with the Kindle platform is that by presenting readers with such a flexible means of displaying text, it’s impossible for the publisher to present readers with a satisfying typographical experience. Take a look at this page from the book I’m reading now, Joan Druett’s Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World:


As you can see (and unlike many Kindle books), there’s actually an attempt to make the book look attractive. There’s some ornament around the chapter number, the font is different from the standard Kindle sans-serif type, and there’s even a fancy initial cap to start off the chapter. But then it all goes wrong. The initial cap isn’t lined up with the baseline of the text, there are huge gaps between many of the words, and an extra hyphen has been left in the middle of “bring- ing” for no apparent reason.

The huge spaces are there because Kindle is absolutely horrible at creating readable justified text. It’s not an easy problem to create a straight right margin without destroying the continuity of the text, which is why most online texts don’t even try (consider this blog, for example, or the New York Times article above). But apparently someone at Amazon decided that e-books should be e-justified, and we’re still living with that horrible decision five years later. There used to be an option on a Kindle to remove the justification, but it usually didn’t work (perhaps the publisher overrode this option?), and I’m not seeing the option at all on my current model.

Why Amazon allows you to make body text the size of a headline, but still won’t allow readers to control justification is beyond me, but it makes for terribly distracted reading. The problem is even worse when you attempt to read a Kindle book on a smaller screen, like an iPhone. And while justification is a somewhat complicated problem, it’s not impossible to do well. QuarkXpress did it quite quickly on a mid-1990s Mac, including (for the most part) proper hyphenation. The only time I’ve seen any sort of hyphenation on a Kindle is when a stray hyphen made its way into the e-version by accident, as in my example above.

Even worse is the way Kindle handles illustrations. Most graphics on the Kindle are too tiny to be of any use. You can blow them up, but only to the size of the (tiny) Kindle display. The Kindle is, in fact, a small computer. Why can’t we zoom in to the image and see it in more detail, if need be? Again, I could do this on my 1995 Mac. I could do it on my 1985 Mac. Surely I should be able to do it on a modern computing device.

So a Kindle is a trade-off. We buy Kindle books instead of physical books because, despite their problems, they are more portable, more searchable, and more convenient. We can get [most] of the same meaning out of an e-book as a physical e-book, but we could be getting much more. And that is the real problem with the Kindle.

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6 Responses to Yes, reading on a Kindle is still “reading.” What you don’t get on a Kindle is “typography.”

  1. Bud Parr says:

    I agree about the typography issues. Some apps, like Readmill, try to make a better go of it. It’s still early days though.

    One of the arguments (from a reading standpoint), is Tim Parks from NYRB:

    The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

  2. Sherri says:

    Couple of quibbles. The resolution on the Kindle e-ink display has changed over the 5 years; the latest generation Paperwhite is 212 pixels per inch with a resolution of 1024×768, compared with earlier generations which had 167 ppi and a resolution of 600×800. The Paperwhite also allows for zooming in on illustrations; double-tap on the illustration and you’ll be in a mode where you can zoom and pan.

    Justification hasn’t changed.

  3. William Ockham says:

    Actually, your ideas about the Kindle are a little out of date. All of the problems with that book (except justification) are problems with the book, not the Kindle. All current Kindle models can do classic dropcaps, publisher fonts, and ragged right margins. Hyphenation, justification, and word spacing are a little bit tougher and definitely Amazon’s problem, but I wouldn’t say any other device makers, except perhaps Apple, are doing much better.

  4. dave says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. William, can you give an example of a Kindle book that does dropcaps well? I haven’t seen one.

    I’d still argue the user should be able to override the publisher and specify ragged right over justified text, especially given the horrific problems in justification that apparently have not been solved yet — wouldn’t you say that’s Kindle’s problem, not the publisher’s problem?

    Sherri, thanks for the information about the Paperwhite. I hadn’t realized it had improved the screen resolution. And that’s good news about graphics (provided publishers actually provide graphics with enough resolution to make a difference).

    Bud, that’s an interesting line of reasoning, but I wonder if it’s taking things a bit too far. By that reasoning, some of the “benefits” of e-texts are due to technological limitations that future e-texts may undo. I’m not sure e-texts are inherently more grown-up, they just might require a bit more focus in their current incarnation than paper texts, precisely because paper texts have benefitted from centuries of refinement.

  5. William Ockham says:

    I sent you a Dropbox link to a Kindle screenshot showing a dropcap. I agree that the Kindle has serious justification issues. Amazon actively discourages publishers from doing “ragged right” and doesn’t allow users that choice. That is pretty bad. But the lack of effort by publishers to produce decent ebooks is worse. The big publishers deliberately turn out crap ebooks because they are more interested in protecting the hardcover bestseller market from ebook encroachment. Just look at that hyphen in your example. How does that get past QA? Clearly they have no QA.

  6. dave says:

    William, Thanks for the screenshot — looks quite good. It’s a bizarre strategy on the part of the publishers, isn’t it? While their printed hardbacks for the most part are carefully crafted, professionally typeset, with attention to detail, their ebooks look worse than pulp paperbacks. And yet these days ebooks are rarely priced more than a dollar or so less than the hardback equivalent, despite easily making up that in lower printing / distribution expense.

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