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The evolution of the book to the digital page

With summer holidays looming and suitcase space tight, I recently bought myself a Kindle. The e-reader is now available in a variety of models pitched at a variety of price points. Mine is called a Paperwhite. The name, like much about the digital reading experience, looks to elide the gap between reading on paper and reading on a plastic screen. When the device is locked, it displays one of a series of holding images that hark back to pre-digital text technologies: a clutch of pens, a galley full of moveable type, the ink bleed of a manuscript letter in close up. The born digital nature of most writing today can feel like something of a dirty secret.

At the same time, there are perfectly good reasons for skeuomorphic design, that is, when new technologies ape aspects of the older ones they are displacing. It makes the transition between technologies more comfortable, the learning curve shallower. The first printed books often preserved manuscript features – illumination or rubrication, for example – in order to appear less alien to their late medieval readership. Perhaps the most obviously skeuomorphic feature of my new e-reader is the way that the text is divided into a series of pages, like an old-fashioned book, rather a single scrolling block, like this blogpost. I don’t think I’m ready to read a novel that isn’t divided into pages. I can’t quite say why, but I suspect I’m not alone in this.

I don’t think I’m ready to read a novel that isn’t divided into pages. I can’t quite say why, but I suspect I’m not alone in this.

If I fire up Pride and Prejudice the screen looks reassuringly familiar. Yes, there’s the famous opening – “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” – but also, above it, in large, centred lettering, generously framed in whitespace, Chapter One. The page layout is comfortingly bookish. What’s more, if I want to, I can pull up the book’s front matter: title page, table of contents, introduction – all parts of the book that have their own long backstories. But when I follow the link labelled Copyright Page the illusion starts to glitch. Copyright pages have a chequered history. They are something of a ragbag – a bundle of dates, legals, and cataloguing info, thrown together and printed on the reverse of the title page – but they tend to fit on one page. It’s in the name. Not here though. Even if I fiddle with the settings, choosing the smallest font and the meanest margins, this page runs over two screens.

So my device isn’t great with page numbers. This has been a high profile issue since e-readers made their first appearance. But let’s remember that page numbers are not timeless. You hardly find them at all in the middle ages, for much the same reason that they make don’t sense on a gadget with resizable fonts. When every book had to be copied out by hand, the page number didn’t offer a standard measure. Your copy of a work might have been written out on larger sheets than mine, or in smaller handwriting, or with illuminations or double-sized initials that mine lacked. Any pagination would then be copy-specific: it wouldn’t provide a transferable reference that could be shared among a dispersed reading community. Only with the arrival of the printed edition did that become possible. For referencing, it was more useful to have a locator based on some feature of the work itself, such as dividing a work into chapters, with the standard chaptering of the Bible accomplished by Stephen Langton around the turn of the thirteenth century.

Returning to Pride and Prejudice, my Kindle is certainly reproducing that novel’s chaptering, but it’s also offering me something else to make up for the lack of page numbers. Down in the bottom right of the screen is a percentage. The device has divided my book into a hundred equal parts so that it can tell me what proportion I’ve read. This isn’t such a new idea either. The Dominican friars of thirteenth century Paris, looking for a more granular locator than Langton’s chaptering, would divide each chapter into equal sevenths which could then be referred to by a letter from a to gIn the beginning…? Genesis 1a. Jesus wept? John 11d.

What about “Time left in chapter” – my device’s other way of situating me within a work? It feels rather novel, to have our reading presented to us in terms of duration, rather than having to estimate this ourselves based on metrics of length. Still, perhaps the chapter itself has always had one eye on the clock. In his novel Joseph Andrews (1742), Henry Fielding pictures his readers as hard-pressed but conscientious scholars in need of some light relief. They read novels in snatches of half an hour before diligently returning to weightier matters. And if the chaptering isn’t calibrated to this thirty-minute breaktime, Fielding reasons, they will find themselves adrift midchapter, thereby “spoiling the beauty of a book by turning down its leaves”. Not a problem for me, thankfully, with my skeuomorphic bookmark. Just as well, since the e-reader does not – yet – come with foldable corners. Not even on the Paperwhite.

Feature Image Credit: “e-reader” by Amanda Jones. Free use via Unsplash.

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