The 2000-Year-Old Art of Page Design

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So, this guy, Jani Patokallio, asserts that people will want to read books rendered in regular HTML in a browser. Which is to say, he is dissing ePub as a format.

He also dismisses DRM (I agree) and paid content (I don’t agree). I don’t intend to spend much time on the paid content argument as I’m more interested here in the aesthetics of rendering books rather than business models. But I would only point out that the assumption—that “electronic” and “web” mean “free” is an assumption and not an argument. And as evidence that this will turn out not to be true, in addition to the paywalls sprouting up around premium content all over the web, I’d just present one empirical fact: Music revenues—on the back of digital salesrose this year. Nothing like an ugly fact to kill a beautiful hypothesis.

No, rather, what I want to talk about is the assertion that ePub as a format has no value; that browser-HTML or PDF are better. First; about PDF—PDF is a great screen representation of a print layout; but it’s static. It cannot re-flow for different screens. It is inherently inflexible. Readers are interested in more flexible formats for digital reading.

But, secondly, about rendering “books” in browsers in regular HTML… Here’s the thing—the thing that Patokallio might not know: Page design pre-dates printing.

Think about what that means.

The digiterati assumption seems to be that the codex-book format and type design that we’ve inherited came driven by printing technology, and that if printing technology is a legacy technology, when we go digital, we can abandon it. But this assumption is historically and empirically false. (Again—nothing quite like an ugly fact…) Codices appeared around the year 1 BCE. Modern type design (in terms of public lettering) around the same time (although done by hand and obviously not by moveable type). Page design—rendered by hand—followed the codex format.

And, later, printers developed their technology around the existing forms. This means that readers selected the codex—over the scroll—well before Gutenberg developed latinate moveable type. This means: People like pages; they don’t like scrolling; and this human factors development pre-dates printing, and logically will outlive it, too.

Not that I would expect people who want to “move fast and break things” to know this history, or to know the value of the things that developed before them…

About Scott Epstein

I've consumed science fiction for as long as I can remember. I've written it since age 8. I founded and edited Proteus Continuum, a Science Fiction magazine, at Tufts University from 1990-1992. Professionally, I've worked in professional publishing for more than 17 years, in both editorial and marketing functions.
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