paginating, embedding

Two cool posts from if:book: first, a defense of the value of pagination, even in digital texts:

It’s important to realise what you’re doing when you’re scrolling. You’re gazing at the line you were reading as you draw it up the screen, to near the top. When it gets to the top, you can continue reading. You do this very quickly, so it doesn’t really register as hard work. Except that it changes your behaviour — because a misfire sucks. A misfire occurs when you scroll too far too rapidly, and the line you were reading disappears off the top of the screen. In this case, you have to scroll in the other direction and try to recognise your line — but how well do you remember it? Not necessarily by sight, so immediately you have to start reading again, just to find where you were. . . .
Beyond this, even if you have startling accuracy, still you are doing a lot of work, because your eyes must track your current line as it animates across the screen. For sustained reading, this quickly gets physically tiring.

Pagination works for long text, not because it has a real-world analogy to printed books or whatever, but because it maximises your interface: you read the entire screenful of text, then with a single command, you request an entirely new screenful of text. There’s very little wastage of attention or effort. You can safely blink as you turn.

A strong argument.
Second, I didn’t realize that the Internet Archive has created a cool tool for embedding whole books in webpages. I’m still trying to decide how useful this is, and what its uses might be, but anyway, it is cool.

marginal technology

Via Adam Keiper, my editor here at The New Atlantis, I see this fascinating story about . . . well, several things, but primarily about the efforts of Bob Stein — founder of the Voyager Company and then, more recently, the Institute for the Future of the Book — to create more deeper and more meaningful communities of reading. Virtual communities, that is: Stein says, “This is the billion-dollar question, How do you model [an online] conversation, a real conversation, among a large number of people?” He’s trying to achieve this primarily through CommentPress, which is basically a celebration of marginalia. (Here’s a long, scholarly article on CommentPress by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.) How you feel about this project may largely depend on how you feel about actual marginalia. When you check out a library book, or peruse a used book, that has commentary in the margins, are you disgusted or intrigued? My default position is disgust, but I think that’s largely because most marginal commentary is not especially intelligent. It also tends to be sloppy — Can't you people underline more neatly? Please! — and intermittent. More often than not it starts out boldly but peters out altogether after a few pages. Of course, if you know and are interested in the person writing in those margins the situation is wholly different. People used to lend books to the poet Coleridge so they could get them back with the great man’s annotations, which they typically found more interesting that the books themselves. When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis I took great delight in looking through volumes he had owned to see what he had written in the margins. In that case also it was what the other writers had prompted Lewis to think that intrigued me. The margins were what mattered to me; the text itself was, to my mind, . . . well, marginal. At least for that moment. The question I have about CommentPress, then, is this: Where does it direct our attention? Is it about illuminating the books under discussion? Or are the books there instrumentally, to serve as prompts for community-building? I suppose this will vary from case to case, but Bob Stein’s remarks suggest that the real goal is to connect people, with books as means to that end. Which is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned; that’s a worthy use for books.


I’m going to be traveling for the next week or so, so posting will be light to non-existent, but before I go I want to take belated note of this thoughtful post from Sebastian Mary (or maybe it's sebastian mary) over at if:book.

Let's look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today's mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book's dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.

Yes, and (though seb. mary doesn't say this) the Kindle and other e-readers constitute a move towards absolute standardization of dimensions. Here’s the next paragraph:

Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I'm thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.

Right again, and interesting, because in the matter of word count e-readers are creating vastly greater flexibility, even as they necessarily standardize dimensions. The other day I realized that I didn't have a copy of “The Monkey’s Paw,” the classic scary story by W. W. Jacobs (no relation), and discovered that I can download it all by itself from Amazon — no need to buy a whole collection of stories just to get that one. On the other hand, one of the reasons I got a Kindle in the first place was because I didn't want to lug around big fat books like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Or let’s consider Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy writer charged with completing Robert Jordan’s ultra-massive Wheel of Time series: he has recently decided to split what was to be the last volume into three books, and one of the reasons for this is the problem of printing and binding books beyond a certain size. And anything even associated with Robert Jordan is, well, beyond a certain size. But if e-reader publication was the norm, that wouldn't matter at all — you could put the whole four million words of the series (that’s what it’ll amount to by the time Sanderson’s done, near enough) into a single file if you wanted to. There are also some interesting possibilities for serial publication, but that’ll have to wait for another post on another day.