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E-Reading: A Midterm Progress Report

31 July 2012

From The Atlantic:

E-readers have been around long enough now that the novelty has largely worn off. To be sure, we still get the occasional article or blog post celebrating the smell of “real books” and denouncing the disembodied fakery of text on a screen, but not nearly as many as in recent years. E-readers are simply part of the reading landscape now — the first Kindle was released almost five years ago — and it’s time for a midterm progress report. How is the technology developing? What has been accomplished and what remains to be done?

. . . .

  • LCD screens are as glare-prone as ever: though there are some screen protectors that claim to reduce glare, I have yet to find one that has a significant effect, so if you’re going to be reading outdoors the e-ink screens are still your best bet. However, it should be noted that all e-ink screens are more reflective than paper, so that some degree of glare management is intrinsic to the e-reading experience, at least for now. Technologies have not changed noticeably in this respect.
  • E-ink screens today have much better contrast that the earlier ones did. That’s a big plus.
  • E-readers still have limited typeface options and do a generally lousy job of handling kerning and spacing. I’ve seen little improvement in those areas.

. . . .

But it seems to me that the most serious deficiencies of e-readers involve readers’ interactions with books. In this respect we may be losing ground rather than gaining it. That I even care about this clearly puts me in the minority among readers, as I know from decades of teaching literature: it has always been, and it continues to be, difficult to get students to write in their books in meaningful and useful ways.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic


11 Comments to “E-Reading: A Midterm Progress Report”

  1. Interesting article and thank you for sharing. I had a client ask me about kerning. It isn’t automatically supported by CSS3, and it’s a major pain to implement. So it’s probably not coming to eBook world anytime soon. But typography is slightly improving in eBooks. You can embed fonts in the Kindle Fire and iBooks now as long as you don’t run afoul of licensing issues with the foundries that own the fonts. Still, it’s a long uphill battle to catch up with the typographic niceties of print…

  2. Kerning is for FIXED FORMATS! Not for ebook body text!

    Same with all the fussy little tweaks beloved of us typographers. It’s like classical chefs who insist on salting things to death, and refuse to have salt on the table, regardless of the fact that these days, some people are on salt-restricted diets, and some not.

    I love fonts. I love typography. They belong in images and in fixed formats like PDFs and paper. They do NOT belong in ebook body text.

    • I am sending you many, many virtual flowers!!

    • You’re my hero, Camille!

      It’s like the monks complaining that Gutenberg’s heathen machine can’t produce elegant calligraphy like they can.

    • YES! This. This as a READER.

    • Camille,

      I do not agree that kerning is only for fixed format files. There is no reason that a reflowable format can’t benefit from a well kerned typeface. It is simply the lack of computing power on ereaders and current format choices that prevents it. My iPad 3 with its Retina display and decent processor should be able to handle kerning on the fly. My new laptop certainly can. I’m not sure about the capabilities of eInk screens. Of course, the reliance of ebook formats on really bad implementations of HTML and CSS means that kerning is beyond the realm of possibility for most ebooks in reflowable formats.

  3. Your preaching to the choir, Camille, but some clients insist on fonts embedded in their eBooks and my little girl needs a new pair of everything. While embedded fonts on body content of eBooks is silly since it overrides the reader’s preference, it actually can look nice in headings. You can apply kerning to content (eBook, websites, or anything else that uses CSS) with the letter-spacing property, but it’s rather cumbersome and not worth the trouble.

  4. Why do people who write in their books insist so hard that those of us who don’t, should?

    I don’t run around ripping the highlighters out of people’s hands; they shouldn’t insist that I keep my notes and annotations on an already-crowded page instead of on nice blank paper, or in my head.

    And yeah, I personally find it creepy to be reading an ebook and find passages that are pre-underlined. Ew. Hate it. Constantly having to change my settings to get rid of it.

    • Anyway, given that e-readers have so much storage, it would be pretty simple to add more annotation powers for those who want ’em. I’m pretty sure people are already working on apps for that.

      So he’s whining that tech can’t do it, which is silly, instead of offering to throw all his money at an annotation app, which would be useful.

    • I don’t get the insistence of certain people, including teachers, that you have to write in a book to properly understand it either.

      I was taught by my parents that one does not write in books. Only barbarians do that. Hence I was very disturbed to get a German teacher in highschool who insisted that we had to write in the books assigned (something I had been brought up to view as vandalism), because only books with lots of notes had been read properly. Anyway, I still refused to write in books (because it’s wrong) and so I simply pretended to scribble with my pencil to satisfy that teacher.

      When it came to exams, however, we were not allowed to use books with underlinings and scribblings. Instead we had to bring clean books. And guess who was the only person in the class who did not have to buy a new copy?

  5. Write in a book? My mother would have broken my fingers if I had DARED.

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