eBooks and Design

My col­lec­tion of works on typog­ra­phy and gen­er­al design includes some of my favorite books. The art of plac­ing words on a page, or screen, is some­thing I admire. The designer’s choic­es, which once appeared with some fre­quen­cy in colophons, shape the read­ing expe­ri­ence. Nothing appalls me more than a pub­lish­er giv­ing no thought to the typog­ra­phy of a text. Books should have per­son­al­i­ties, adding to the mean­ing with­out harm­ing leg­i­bil­i­ty or read­abil­i­ty.

A font can be leg­i­ble, but not read­able — mean­ing the let­ters are clear as units, but words or sen­tences are a chal­lenge to read as a text. Typefaces are designed for spe­cif­ic sizes and for spe­cif­ic pur­pos­es. The face at a giv­en size is a font, and in book pub­lish­ing the pre­ferred fonts are serif faces of 9.5 to 12-point. For near­ly two cen­turies, the tra­di­tion­al book face in the English-lan­guage press was Caslon. During the last cen­tu­ry, oth­er faces have risen to dom­i­nance. Examples of pop­u­lar book faces include Bookman, Goudy, Palatino, and Times Roman.

The rea­son I offer this lengthy intro is that I am both­ered by one aspect of many eBook for­mats: the lack of design con­trol.

There is a tech­no­log­i­cal lim­it: most hard­ware has only a lim­it­ed num­ber of fonts. Some eBook read­ers only offer a serif and a sans-serif face. It’s a lux­u­ry to have three or four serif faces and two sans serif faces. The book design­er has no con­trol at all over the read­ing expe­ri­ence. The read­er con­trols the appear­ance of the book.

Because screen sizes and res­o­lu­tions vary, the book design­er doesn’t con­trol pag­i­na­tion. Spacing, tabs, and line breaks are beyond the con­trol of the design­er, as well. In lit­er­ary works, espe­cial­ly poet­ry, this is a seri­ous detri­ment. Poems meant to reside on a page might end up on two or three screens. Visual poet­ry, in par­tic­u­lar, is near­ly impos­si­ble to sup­port with­in an eBook.

Someone asked me if I dis­like audio­books. I think some books work as audio­books while oth­ers do not. Obviously, visu­al poet­ry does not work as an audio­book, but poet­ry that was meant to be per­formed is ide­al for audio. I’m sure a great many works are design- and form-inde­pen­dent. But, there are books that are best expe­ri­enced visu­al­ly.

An art book is cer­tain­ly an exam­ple of a text that should be designed care­ful­ly. Any visu­al book should be itself a work of art.

It has been sug­gest­ed that PDF (Adobe Portable Document Format) eBooks could be a solu­tion. The prob­lem is that these are larg­er files and, while portable, would still present a prob­lem for small­er hard­ware. Zooming in and out to read a page on a small screen is a has­sle, even if it allows the design­er more con­trol.

I’m not sure what the solu­tion will be, but the migra­tion to eBooks is inevitable. What this means for design is hard to pre­dict. I hope there is a solu­tion, a way to main­tain book per­son­al­i­ties in the dig­i­tal age.

- Scott

The Value of the Unexpected

I have decid­ed I want to pur­chase a copy of A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose by B. R. Myers (0971865906).

A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose

I am not a “lit­er­ary” read­er, at least not of those vapid works prized by the literati and the super­cil­ious MFA-laden aspir­ing scrib­blers seek­ing the approval of mun­dane crit­ics. I can think of few tor­tures supe­ri­or to lit­er­ary nov­els, though lis­ten­ing to a parade of pre­em­i­nent poets read their works in pub­lic might approach my tol­er­ance for pain and agony.

What I dis­like about lit­er­ary works is that they tend to lack the one qual­i­ty genre fic­tion embraces: the unex­pect­ed. This is not to claim that all lit­er­ary fic­tion is pre­dictable and dull, but the focus on style and lan­guage often comes at the expense of sto­ry­telling.

Yes, genre fic­tion is for­mu­la­ic. The first sus­pects are usu­al­ly inno­cent in the pro­ce­dur­al. True love does not come eas­i­ly in the romance. The Western hero will have to make a cost­ly sac­ri­fice in the name of hon­or. Technology often turns night­mar­ish in sci­ence fic­tion. But, these roadmaps for writ­ers leave plen­ty of choic­es. Just as it is sta­tis­ti­cal­ly pos­si­ble to plot mil­lions of routes across the United States, the num­ber of sto­ries that work with­in a struc­ture defy cal­cu­la­tion.

A good mys­tery is not pre­dictable. We know there will be a solu­tion, but there will be twists and turns along the way. What makes hor­ror inter­est­ing is the sense that the unknown will hap­pen. A polit­i­cal thriller will include the “man of the peo­ple” who is a pow­er-hun­gry tyrant in wait­ing. Yet, we take the trip because we don’t know every road.

When an MFA pro­fes­sor told a class that struc­tures destroy cre­ativ­i­ty, I asked her about Shakespeare. Didn’t William fol­low the rules of rhyming poet­ry? Didn’t his plays fol­low the stan­dard struc­tures of his time? He bor­rowed plots from exist­ing plays and pop­u­lar leg­ends. The pro­fes­sor respond­ed that it was dif­fer­ent for Shakespeare; the Globe Theatre was not a mul­ti­plex with 24 screens.

This does not answer the pri­ma­ry ques­tion. Didn’t Shakespeare cater to audi­ence expec­ta­tions? And his audi­ence was the com­mon­er. Shakespeare wasn’t try­ing to impress the audi­ence with his great­ness. Bill want­ed to sell tick­ets! He’d be com­pet­ing against Cameron and Bruckheimer for open­ing day records. As Lucas and Spielberg were inspired by past film­mak­ers, Shakespeare found inspi­ra­tion in pop­u­lar plays.

I would com­pare the Globe to a mul­ti­plex. It was the afford­able, pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment of the time. Maybe that’s not a good com­par­i­son. Susan and I don’t go to movies because they are so expen­sive, now.

Avoiding tra­di­tion­al struc­tures and audi­ence expec­ta­tions iron­i­cal­ly becomes its own form of ortho­doxy. The result is lit­er­ary works that resem­ble each oth­er, writ­ten by MFA grad­u­ates for MFA grad­u­ates. Impenetrable works are cel­e­brat­ed, even though only a hand­ful of peo­ple fin­ish the books. The insu­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ty won­ders why peo­ple don’t appre­ci­ate them, while they snick­er at the insults to sub­ur­bia and mid­dle-class nor­mal­cy with­in lit­er­ary fic­tion.

I want a sto­ry. I want to read books that are dif­fi­cult to set aside at the end of each chap­ter. I want the writer to tease me with “what ifs” and “why nots” along the way. If I’m not try­ing to antic­i­pate and solve puz­zles, I don’t want to keep read­ing. I get bored if I don’t believe the sto­ry is in some way inter­ac­tive.

For some, lit­er­ary fic­tion is a cel­e­bra­tion of form and style. The idea is to admire the tech­nique more than the sub­ject, as one might look at a still life paint­ing. I’m sim­ply not an aes­thete.

Drag me into your sto­ry. Make me care what hap­pens to the char­ac­ters. I don’t want to sit with a dic­tio­nary, the­saurus, and ency­clo­pe­dia on hand to appre­ci­ate a work. Yes, I love lan­guage. I like a beau­ti­ful para­graph as much as the next read­er. But I want more from a book than a self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry homage to uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tions.

This explains why I like genre fic­tion. A mediocre work of “chick lit” beats most “mag­i­cal real­ism” or “sur­re­al­ist fic­tion.” I’d rather read most young adult series books than endure Auster, Barth, Proulx, or Weinzweig. The inces­tu­ous lit­er­ary estab­lish­ment hon­ors authors few peo­ple actu­al­ly read. Why don’t we read these “great” authors? Because they don’t write great sto­ries.

Give read­ers the unex­pect­ed and they will buy your books. Give them con­de­scend­ing, pre­ten­tious texts and you will only sell books to oth­er snobs.

Blog Launched

They say the best way to learn about writ­ing is to read. Thankfully, we read a lot.

Apparently, book pub­lish­ing is still a $24 bil­lion a year indus­try. We do our small part to help the indus­try. (see http://bookstatistics.com/)

According to an arti­cle in The New Yorker mag­a­zine, one out of ten adults shopped at a used book­store in the last year. We’re part of that ten per­cent, too.

Books on CD

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, but instead of wast­ing the dai­ly com­mute time on radio sta­tions, I final­ly got a library card and began check­ing books on CD out of the local library. So far I’ve checked out non-fic­tion books that I own, but have not yet man­aged to read in my spare time, and I have to admit, this is the best use of that oth­er­wise wast­ed time spent in traf­fic.

Though I’ve only lis­tened to about six or sev­en audio books so far, I’ve noticed a few things.

First, books read by the authors are much eas­i­er to under­stand and more pleas­ant to lis­ten to. Maybe it is a coin­ci­dence and the authors I’ve lis­tened to just hap­pen to be bet­ter at read­ing out loud, but is like­ly their greater famil­iar­i­ty with and inter­est in the sub­ject makes for a smoother deliv­ery.

When the authors read their own work, there were few­er changes in tone, pitch, and tem­po of read­ing, and it was more dif­fi­cult to detect where the dif­fer­ent record­ing ses­sions were spliced. This smooth­ness of deliv­ery was most obvi­ous when lis­ten­ing to Malcolm Gladwell read­ing Blink, and Stephen J. Dubner read­ing Freakonomics. Both authors were pleas­ant to lis­ten to and their deliv­ery made it easy to fol­low the book. I look for­ward to lis­ten­ing to SuperFreakonomics (Dubner) and Outliers and The Tipping Point (Gladwell).

In con­trast, lis­ten­ing to Johnny Heller read­ing Liberal Fascism was painful. Although the top­ic was inter­est­ing (and scary), the deliv­ery was mediocre or worse. The tone of the nar­ra­tor changed so often it was dif­fi­cult to tell when he was read­ing text from the book or read­ing a quote from the book. I was con­stant­ly chang­ing the vol­ume on my car radio to accom­mo­date the changes in the narrator’s vol­ume. One of the more grat­ing habits was when Johnny Heller imi­tat­ed a Boston accent when read­ing a quote from John F. Kennedy, and mim­ic­ked the dis­tinct upper class accent of Franklin D. Roosevelt when read­ing his quotes. Liberal Fascism was dif­fi­cult to com­plete, part­ly because of the nar­ra­tor cho­sen.

I loved lis­ten­ing to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, because I am inter­est­ed in his­to­ry and, though I own this book in print, will prob­a­bly lis­ten to the audio book again some­day. This was the first audio book I lis­tened to, which may be why I do not recall notic­ing any prob­lems with either the writ­ing or the deliv­ery.

While lis­ten­ing to a sec­ond book by Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I’m notic­ing too many style issues that the edi­tor in me just itch­es to cor­rect.

The use of “in order to” on almost every page is dri­ving me crazy, as is the fre­quent incor­rect use of “due to,” at least one instance of “sit­u­at­ed on,” some which/that mis­use (at least in America), and a few oth­er wordy, unnec­es­sary phras­es.

Another per­ti­nent obser­va­tion is the use of for­eign words. When read­ing the book, it is easy for a read­er to flip back and forth between the pages using unfa­mil­iar for­eign words and the pages con­tain­ing the def­i­n­i­tion. This is not pos­si­ble in an audio book. In the chap­ter about Easter Island and its basalt stat­ues, I was con­fus­ing the many Polynesian terms Diamond used, espe­cial­ly when sev­er­al of the words were used in the same sen­tence. It would have been eas­i­er to fol­low if he’d used “stat­ue” and “plat­form” to describe the stat­ue and the plat­form on which it rest­ed instead of using the native terms.

I enjoy read­ing or lis­ten­ing to books that com­bine his­to­ry, archae­ol­o­gy, and sci­ence, but some of these authors with some­thing inter­est­ing to say need to work with good edi­tors to improve their writ­ing.

Oct 2009