Yet more on the future of sustained narrative

Anne asked a great question in response to my post on Monday. I predict the demise of printed books within 20 years. On Monday, I qualified that prediction, saying that books will still exist, but they will be collector’s items, purchased more for their significance as objects than for the information they contain. Anne asked “What do you think will happen to the sustained grappling with texts that are beautiful or difficult or both?”

The answer is, I think we will continue to grapple with them, onscreen. There is nothing sacred about the physical word on the physical piece of paper. Paper itself has gone through some interesting transitions in its own history. I’m not going to pretend I’m a scholar in the area, but it’s only been quite recently that paper was the preferred medium for text. Papyrus was preferred until well into the first millennium, and machine-made paper from wood pulp didn’t come onto the scene until the 19th century. Important documents were not written on paper but parchment, made from animal skins.

You can argue that our experience with books has been largely the same since Gutenberg, a legacy of over 500 years, and that is true, but for centuries before that people still grappled with important texts. The change of medium did affect the way in which people prefer to approach a significant work: they approached many more of them; they grappled with them less seriously. I see no reason, assuming (as I expect they will be) e-texts are more readily available than printed texts, for that trend not to continue.

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. It’s a different thing, but is it a bad thing? When scholars finally had the Gutenberg Bible, I suspect that at first they rejected it: their handwritten bibles were more beautiful, more authoritative, written as they were in the church’s latin. But eventually those hand-copied works were set aside: either put in museums or forgotten, because of the increased usability and legibility of a printed book.

There is no reason to believe that printed books are the pinnacle of usability and legibility. With print books, I’ve always found a trade-off. The most usable books allow me to easily write in the margins; they include more informative running heads, and plenty of cross-referencing. These aids actually detract from legibility. Paper that’s easy to write on is not the best for holding printed type. The most legible printed page is probably some sort of glossy, coated stock, likely to repel the pencil and make my ink clot up or run. Running heads detract from the balance of the page and consume precious margin area. Cross-references detract from the reading experience, as do the very written notes that clutter the margins of my books. My copy of Herodotus has so many notes that I can barely see the printed text any more. I think now, if I was going to reread Herodotus, I’d have to start with a fresh copy.

A well-designed e-book reader can be better than a well-designed book. Of course it would come with a stylus, for manual note taking and highlighting. It could display the text with or without my notes. Certainly the resolution and brightness of the screen would have to be improved; e-ink seems to be the most likely candidate so far.

But designing a proper screen is only half the battle. The interface for reading would have to be improved as well. One of the best e-book readers, TK3, still has plenty of room for improvement. While there are many ways to take notes, it only allows viewing of a single page at a time, which makes it difficult to compare passages. The Macintosh version still doesn’t anti-alias the text, making the fonts jagged and difficult to read. And I’d like to see a better way to “thumb through” a text. For simply reading an e-text, I prefer Apple’s Preview, but it falls apart in the note-taking department. Worst of all is Adobe’s ungainly, bloated Acrobat Reader, which bogs down even my six-month-old computer, and doesn’t allow note-taking in its free version.

None of these tools offer a good way for readers to locate themselves within a document. TK3 offers a progress bar that gives a good visual sense of location, but this bar offers precious little information otherwise. Apple and Adobe use the vertical scroll bar in the same way, and offer the additional device of thumbnail images of each page. But why not include some useful information along with the thumbnails, such as chapter titles, or even subheadings? The thumbnails themselves are too small to be legible. Acrobat and Preview do offer a contents view in their sidebars, but again, these provide few clues as to the size of the sections they refer to.

Interestingly, blogs offer many of the features that are lacking in e-book readers. Good blogs offer an intuitive organizing principle: the calendar. Every blog entry has a title, and many blogs also list the most recent posts by title. I can also display all the entries on a certain topic, search the entries, or use the graphical calendar to locate entries. There is a comments section for notes, and an easy and unobstructive way to cross-reference blog entries and comments: links.

This gives me an idea.

Which I’ll cover in my next post.

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One Response to Yet more on the future of sustained narrative

  1. Pingback: Word Munger » Blooks: the next big thing?

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