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.