Bookmarkable Reading: Wired and Why E-Books Look So Ugly

Now granted that there is something to be said about the whole beauty being in the eye of the beholder thing, but Wired takes up a question (“Why E-Books Look So Ugly”) that any of us who have ever read an ebook have thought about, at least in passing.

Almost all of the discussion of ebook readability is hardware-centric — more often than not focusing on screen resolution, or glare, etc. of the ereading device which we happen to be reading on. But in terms of the actual words we read, ebooks still look rather blah, for lack of a better adjective (actually ‘blah,’ pretty much does cover it). From Wired:

“‘There’s a dearth of typographic expression in e-books today,’ says Pablo Defendini, digital producer for”

Gosh, there is an awful lot to say on the topic of typography. But for now, we’ll focus on an interesting analogy that comes up in that same Wired article, describing what contributes to the personality of a book:

“Different typefaces are like having different actors in [a] play … The variations in typeface influence the personality of the book. Sticking to one font is much like having the same actor play all the different parts.”

So what? Whether or not the specific issue of typography carries any emotional valence for you or me, there’s something extremely important in this — it reminds us, as much as we think of written and visual communication as separate things, there is an undeniable visual element to words on a page that might simply go unnoticed during our experience of reading. Unnoticed, that is, until it’s no longer there. The elements of a text — style, format, design — are part of that form of expression which makes a book what it is.

Or, maybe it’s simply a matter of personal preference. Maybe we should be thinking about what it is that we truly want in the reading experience: is it consistency and sameness? Or is it variation, uniqueness, personality? When reading our ebooks on a Kindle or an iPad, some of those bookish elements — book covers are probably what I miss most — are inevitably lost. We move from handling the thingness of a bound, printed book to manipulating whichever e-reading device we happen to be using. With printed books, we feel the difference between a cheap mass-market paperback edition, or the solidity of a library edition hardcover — different from the hardware of an e-reading device, which is always feels the same.

It’s somewhat telling that a Wired article from a couple of years ago is still quite relevant today. Of course, the chances are pretty darn good that ebooks are not going to stay ugly forever. We might be seeing glimpses, based on some of the interesting things that enhanced ebooks are showing us, of what’s possible for the evolution of ebooks.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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