The Demise of Books, or, A Web Designer's Manifesto

Imagine an author discussing the type-setting of a piece of her work with her publisher. The piece might be very short, say no more than the text for a wall-poster; it might be somewhat longer, such as this essay; or it might be long enough to fill an entire book, such as a novel. In the case of the wall-poster, the formatting is very flexible, and the author might well take the liberty of being very picky as to exactly how the text is broken up. For instance, if the text includes the phrase "PURPLE PEOPLE EATER", she might well insist that "PURPLE PEOPLE" not appear on one line, with "EATER" on the next (as it may or may not appear here, depending how wide your window is), since that might unintentionally suggest that it is not the monster that is purple, but rather the people that it eats. Or, more commonly, she might consider a particular phrase to be very important, and not want it broken up over two lines at all. Let us call such a phrase "perverse". To keep perverse phrases together, the size of the font can be adjusted; graphics can be repositioned; and line-breaks can be introduced before and after so the perverse phrase has an entire line to occupy all by itself.

In the situation of the book-length piece of work, however, perverse phrases are less reasonable: The text cannot be locally adjusted (ie. adjusted in a way that only affects text which is near to it) because the type-setting must be uniform throughout the work to achieve a handsome appearance, so that for instance the amount of space between the words cannot be excessively altered for one or two lines alone, and nor can a premature line-break be introduced to obviate one in the middle of the perverse phrase. On the other hand, global adjustment , such as making all the lines shorter or longer, might be acceptable, but if the book is long the number of phrases which the author would like to keep together, ie. deem "perverse", might well be very large. As a result, there may be no way to accommodate them all, and the readability of the text is unavoidably hampered.

But of course, we know better. As consumers of textual information, we have been trained to accept line-breaks as having no bearing whatsoever on the message imparted by the text. We have learned to mentally adjoin the beginning of one line of text to the end of the line preceding it. Writers and publishers have never had to worry about where their line-breaks (and their cousins, the page-breaks) appear because they know their readers will dutifully obey the convention of overlooking them: Readers know that a phrase which is broken up over two lines, or even over two pages, is not necessarily meant by the author to be construed as less important. In short, we don't ever deem or recognize phrases as perverse.

Well enough for the literate population. But what about the rest: What about new readers? What about children? Are there people out there who might show more of an interest in books were it not for this ever-present, but seldom explained, convention? It is my contention that to some degree and with some probably very small but significant percentage of the population, we are in this way stifling their reading enjoyment: It is harder to focus on a phrase that has been broken up in the middle.

In the past, this was unavoidable. In the computer age, however, it is not. This essay, for example, is an html document and has no pre-set line-breaks or page-breaks at all. In addition we will, as the technology improves, be able to cram more and more onto webpages by scrolling the text across the screen. There are probably innumerable clever ways of doing this which retain all of the advantages of static text but which never impose a line-break on the reader unless the author specifically calls for one. To mention wall-posters again, for which, as you recall, the formatting is so flexible: A webpage is very much like a wall-poster, except that, obviously, it does not appear on a wall, and except that, more importantly, a webpage might-- rather easily, in fact (downloading time being negligible compared to reading time) -- contain a complete novel within its confines. Future generations will, if we make it available to them, find almost all the reading material they need, from Shakespeare to digital camera instructions, on these "posters" online. If appropriate scrolling techniques become popular, and I rather suspect they will, the line- and page-break convention employed in a traditional book might well come to seem bothersome and un-natural, perhaps even puzzling, to them. And I have no doubt that the technology will come along for all this to happen.

As I see it, this line-break (and page-break) convention is like a piece of the scaffolding that has been used to build a modern edifice. In this analogy, the edifice is the computer age. We could not have reached the computer age without the "scaffolding" of the line-break convention because we would have been virtually incapable of communicating ideas upon which the computer concept depends, such as those in the many historic scientific treatises on electicity, logic, engineering, etc., and the countless textbooks derived therein, except by the obviously-limited medium of word-of-mouth. But now that the edifice is complete, we can expect the ugly scaffolding to come down.

Don't get me wrong. There will always be books. The concept will always have some relative value. For instance, books containing poetry, which has its own natural line-breaks, do not come within the domain of my argument (unless the poem is long and not broken up into stanzas, so that page-breaks are forced in inauspicious places). And readers of pulp literature will be less fastidious about which phrases are important, whereas more sophisticated readers will always be able to understand and adjust to line-breaks more easily. But on the whole, I do see people spending more time reading computer files,and less time reading books, and doing so historically sooner than others may imagine, due to this consideration.

Finally, I want to stress that the technology is going to improve. Many of the best-loved features of books such as browsability, portability, reliability, lack of eye-strain, the option of hi-liting text and adding notes to it will almost certainly become features of the new technology. And although scrolling is quite cumbersome now, imagine having sensors which detect ocular movements and do the scrolling automatically!

It's a changing world.

There will come a time, I foresee, when an appreciable percentage of the reading public will be more comfortable reading a long piece of text online than they will a hardcopy of it, because the line-breaks with which the latter must be infused will be to them both un-natural and foreign.

I do add that with regards to the future one must always say a profuse: "Who knows?" So many things will change that perhaps this one item will never matter. But things will change, because if they didn't change in some unforeseeable ways, my argument would have some validity.