Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Ebooks Need Pages

An interesting retweet from Lightspeed Magazine wandered past my Twitter reader today: yet another pundit demanding that the old paradigm of books and pages be abandoned in favor of ebooks, and their ability to handle text. Specifically, this person wanted to see pages go away. Implicit in that argument is the assumption "Everybody reads like I do, and pageless reading works better for me." My hypothesis is that it ain't so, and pages are the best compromise for different readers.

Like that author, I read in streams. I don't pay much attention to what page I'm on with a given book. I locate myself within a body of text by ideas and phrase sound. I can't tell you what page a given idea is on, but it's right after this other idea and way before that one. By contrast, M, my wife, is very visuo-spatial in general. She does remember where a given thought is pagewise, and where it was on the page. It's on a left side page in the first third of the book, about halfway down the page.

Why is this? Well, an extremely cursory search of the intertubes doesn't turn up much direct research, but in psychology there is a phenomenon called chunking - the units in which we divide up things we need to remember. Why is your phone number broken up into area code, exchange, and number? Partly for historical reasons (the POTS was organized that way much more than the modern one) and partly because it's far, far easier to remember three chunks of three and four numbers than it is to remember ten digits all at once. (719)555-1212 is easier to parse into memory and hold there than 7195551212. I'm going to hypothesize, despite finding no literature to back it up, that the same is true for reading. I'm going to further hypothesize that there are several different styles of chunking going on: by page, by idea/event, and perhaps by sound.

In light of these hypotheses, pages have turned out to be an effective compromise. For those of us who chunk by sub/super-page units like ideas and sound, pages don't get in the way. They're a convenient method to put the words in close proximity. For those who chunk spatially, pages provide a vital division of the text, a third dimension of location (the thickness of the book), and a physical place where a given idea resides.

Ebooks are never going to have useful thickness – that's one of their selling points – but they can and should have pages. Ideally those pages should never reflow, either. This is impractical given the huge variety of screens, so if they can reflow /once/ when the ebook is loaded on a given device, that's probably the best compromise. But for heaven's sake, don't throw out the pages. They're a highly evolved compromise, present even in the era of scrolls (most of which seem to have been read horizontally rather than vertically.) For some people they're absolutely vital.

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