In the November 2010 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, David Pogue writes a column pointing out “The Trouble with E-Readers“. The trouble with Pogue’s column is that he is focusing on arguments that are old-hat and many of them are being addressed. What he, and the rest of the world seem to miss is that perhaps the most significant problem with E-Readers is their aesthetics. Robert J. Sawyer wrote about this scandalous state of e-books back in February.
Pogue argues that the death of the printed book is premature and that comes as news to just about no one following E-Reader developments. In the long run, E-Reader editions of books may very well replace the paperback market, but hardcovers and trade editions are going nowhere anytime soon. He makes a kind of amusing post hoc argument as to why E-Readers won’t replace books (because television didn’t replace radio and e-mail didn’t replace paper).
And then he goes on to talk about the crudeness of the technology, addressing the points that we are all aware of, but not even mentioning the crudeness of the aesthetics for most of these devices. I’ve talked about this before, but for those new to the discussion, what I mean by aesthetics is how pleasing the e-book looks to our trained eyes. And our eyes are trained. When we look at a book, we are used to certain types of justification, certain types of hyphenation, and a certain lack of typos in the text. However, many e-books are scanned in from manuscript without a copy editor, introducing numerous OCR errors that never appear in their print version. (Think of the word “turn”. An OCR scan may see that “rn” as an “m” and so you get “tum” instead. I’ve seen this countless times in e-books. Hyphenation in print books helps maintain the satisfying level of word spacing that we are used to. All of this combines to be the aesthetics of the book and it is here that publishers are presently failing. Fix this aspect of e-books and E-Readers and all of the other pieces will fall into place.
It is not an easy fix. It requires changes to the way e-book software does hyphenation. It requires paying copy editors to read the e-book version of each format of the book produced to check for typos introduced through OCR automation. Publishers will argue that this drives up the price of the book. But until the aesthetics of the e-book match that of the hardcover or paperback, people will continue to resist them for vague reasons that they can’t quite explain.
Ultimately, no device will ever be as perfect as a book. Isaac Asimov gave a reasoned argument for this in his essay “The Ancient and the Ultimate” and if you’ve never read that essay, I urge you to check it out. But I have been generally pleased with my Kindle and I consider myself a convert.