Reading electronically

[2010-01-21] media, computers
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Slowly, but surely e-books are becoming viable. We are still working out the kinks of the electronic reading experience. This blog post examines how our current reading habits developed during the course of history and where they are heading.

How we got here

The printed book still is the reigning champion when it comes to a pleasant reading experience. The following bullet points sketch its history.
  • It all started with single slabs of clay or wood. For example, clay tokens have been used in Mesopotamia as early as 8000 B.C. and later evolved into cuneiform script (around 3400 B.C.).
  • Next were papyrus scrolls as used by the Egyptians (3000 B.C.).
  • The following achievement was to use pages instead of scrolls. This had the advantages of much quicker access (skimming a book is much simpler than skimming a scroll) and of indexability (table of contents, keyword index, etc.). Both are crucial for efficiently managing knowledge. Intriguingly, the western recipe for scientific success, reductionism has been applied here, too: You split a big problem into small pieces that can be handled more easily.
  • Finally, paper was an important step, because it could be mass-produced (in contrast with the alternatives papyrus and, later, parchment). It was common in Europe by the 15th century and invented in China much earlier, around the 2nd century A.D.
  • The Gutenberg bible (1455) began the establishment of movable type printing. It improved on woodblock printing by having more durable materials and more uniform lettering.

Where we are going

Electronic books and the devices for reading them are the next evolutionary step in reading. We can now have the best of both worlds: The fluid reading experience of scrolls and the efficient access of books. Current e-book readers still have mostly paged content, but I expect that to change over time. As an inspiring vision for how we might read magazines in the future, take a look at a study done by Bonnier (article includes a movie—watch it). It presents some nice ideas for how to translate the design language of the printed page to electronic reading devices.

Further reading