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Digital books (and how to put ET books on the iPad)

Here's a look a some iPhone apps for reading books.

I like the Classics app very much and read the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Hound of the Baskervilles with ease. Classics has a page-flip metaphor which works well. This app, however, has only 20 books available at this time.

Sherlock, another iPhone app, uses a continously scrolling text arrangement, which produces too much moving type and not enough reading on the small iPhone screen--and the faster one reads, the more the type scrolls. With more more patience and practice, I might well have lasted longer than 800 words of Sherlock Holmes.

iManual (sliding pages) worked OK for David Pogue's excellentiPhone:The Missing Manual, although computer manuals can be consumed only in small doses unlike a romp through the Hound of the Baskervilles. Pogue's manual helpfully unveiled the clever iPhone keyboard. The book is the best-selling computer manual these days and is available only on the iPhone.

I expect to try out a variety of other digital readers, beginning with Kindle, over the months. A thoughtful discussion of Kindle by the always interesting Karrie Jacobs in Metropolis is here.

For some reason, I've always struggled to read through scholarly articles published as PDF files on a desktop computer screen. After a few pages I give up and print the article out. Google Books is useful for look-up, not sustained reading.

There are all sorts of interesting book design, interface, and copyright issues involving digital readers. I've been thinking about a digital reader version of my own books, although it would involve substantial compromises since my books are designed to the double-page spread and also they push even paper's resolution (which is 10 times greater than most screen resolutions). On the other hand, backlighted screen images often look much better than on paper and those images can incorporate zooming.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

The most reading I do on my Touch is with Instapaper. By using a bookmarklet you can save webpages for reading them later. I actually prefer to read long web articles on the Touch instead of reading them on a computer screen as the resolution is higher on the Touch and Instapaper displays the content in excellent easily readable form.

-- Dominik Unger (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

I think that one of the problems with reading scholarly papers on the computer screen is that more often not they're the two-columned variety. To be able to read comfortably one needs to fit-width (rather than fitting the entire page), which in turn means that you have to scroll up and down as you go from the left column to the right column. As monitors continue to get wider (but not necessarily taller) this problem is only exacerbated. I've searched the internet extensively for a small plugin that would allow one to scroll through a given page twice just by hitting the space bar, but no such thing exists. This would make reading articles on the computer somewhat more manageable, but I think there will always be the problem that reading from a laptop display just isn't that easy.

-- Katie (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

Would the Soerabaja-Djokjakarta timetable be one of those compromises? While zooming could isolate the perspective to a sub-schedule within a group of railroad towns, it would be difficult to offer the reader an electronic view that shows the full schedule in a useful form. When I first looked at the schedule, it resembled disorder. Then as I read your explanation of it, the order came into focus because all of it was on two printed adjacent pages. That allowed me to continually read your words and analyze the schedule in a back-and-forth fashion. I doubt that I could have understood that schedule in an electronic format.

-- Dan MacKenzie (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

Published papers formatted in portrait are always difficult to read on the landscape format of the computer screen. Two obvious (?) solutions: 1) Re-orient the computer screen. The iphone more rapidly adapts between portrait/landscape formats than any other monitor I've worked with. 2) Revise the publishing paradigm from portrait to landscape to reflect the dominance of electronic consumption of formatted text.

-- Michael (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

The fundamental aspect of resolution in information displays seems a crucial part of e-readers to me. Especially to implement more typographic quality in the software. I am working on screens with varying resolution, say between 1024--1680 px on similar widths. Despite the advantage of higher resolution there is few software that adapts its readability to the resolution. Often the paradigm seems "higher resolution means more text on the screen", which is true to some extent, but readability falls behind. Are there pdf-readers that adapt not only page to window width?

-- Gerd (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

My favorite "digital reader" for scholarly articles is my tablet computer. If I orient the screen in portrait mode and put Acrobat in full screen view, then my computer screen is a fair facsimile of a printed page: no scrolling and the text is large enough to read comfortably (usually). The ability to draw on the page and save my annotations is a nice addition also.

-- Ted (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

One other book reading application available for the iPhone is Stanza. There is also a desktop version that has some interesting features - multi-column view (newspaper like). There is a huge library of books to choose from (Gutenberg and other free text collections). You can also read PDF documents using the desktop version (maybe for the scholarly articles).

However, I agree that with the current set of applications (desktop and mobile) it is fairly difficult / cumbersome to do extensive reading.

We would have to wait for some of theses devices to converge to get real improvements in readability for digital readers - kindle's reflective screen as a second screen on a netbook, maybe!

-- Tariq Rauf (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

This was mentioned in a thread about scroll bars, but deserves a note here too. Amar Sagoo's Tofu <> is, in my opinion, the nicest way to read free-form text on a screen. I really want to see some applications with both hyphenation and a decent paragraph composer (TeX's, for instance; a modified version of the algorithm is used by InDesign IIRC), so that we can begin to fit text in columns, competently justified, to the specific shape of the display at hand. It's never going to be as perfect as something composed or corrected by hand, but it'd be far far better than what we currently deal with, in web browsers, PDF readers, etc.

-- Jacob Rus (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

I feel it necessary to mention that I feel Pogue's stance is the wrong one. As much as piracy may occur with digital content, there have been multiple findings that they may, in fact, drive sales (albeit they often lack a controls and samples sizes are often 1). see:

I pirated two of Edward Tufte's books as an undergraduate in Geology.

Let me be more specific. I downloaded two books which had been scanned and digitized and posted online. The quality was poor, and they were difficult to read, but I was curious and they weren't available at my university library, or the local public library.

I have since purchased The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations and Beautiful Evidence for myself. I've also purchased various numbers of copies of each to give as gifts and donate to libraries.

I've always gotten a little grumpy when I see people say something like "The proportion of people who left a tip after downloading "Trigger Happy" was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%." This was Steven Poole who also said at the time that "Trigger Happy" had been downloaded in excess of 30,000 times (as of this comment the counter reads 35,017). But how many people after reading a chapter or two decided to go buy a physical copy and didn't donate, or how many people bought a physical copy as a gift, or for the local library?

Further, while Pogue is happy to quote Poole's comments about freetards (an apt term) and his sales figures he leaves out a very very important paragraph.

"To come back to the relationship between traditionally published books and their electronic counterparts: the happy truth is that right now, electronic downloads don't cannibalize printed sales; if anything, they encourage them. In fact, I would gladly give away my newer book, Unspeak, in the same format right now, except that I am contractually obliged to wait until next year to do so."

I believe that holds true even for piracy, if your product is quality, and I can get a taste for free, I'll probably buy it.

-- Anonymous Coward (email)

Kindle review

A traditionalist reviews the Kindle:

(The New Yorker piece was written before amazon remotely deleted Orwell's 1984 from the Kindles of those who had purchased and downloaded the novel. Real books don't call home.)

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

Here's a feature I like --- using "Page up" and "Page down" gives one the impression the pages are actually turning, versus going directly from one page to another:

A simple thing that makes the digital book appear more like a "book" book.

Mike Round

-- Michael Round (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

Mobile reading can be enjoyable.

Despite my dislike for proprietary binary files, I must say I read most of my technical material (graphic, diagram heavy) in PDF format using a PDF app like GoodReader. The PDF format is also great for scrolling through maps. If a publisher supports the epub format, I use Stanza and enjoy the benefits of reflowing content.

Form factor, counts.

Most of my non-fiction reading is with my Kindle 1, but I found using the Kindle app superior as the handheld is always with me. My wife, the book hound broke down at my suggestive pleas to early adopt the Sony Reader PRS-500 despite her luddite tendencies. She loves it and had it for many years until recently when she traded to the upgraded Sony touchscreen model. There is a bit of glare with the touchscreen overlay but like most who enjoy such things, content overrides the interface.

Convenience has a rub, though.

I don't think we're there yet, if there ever is a there, there. 2010 is supposed to be the big year for e-readers. Time will tell with bigger readers, players and new tech like Pixel-Qi.

How long does it last?

Today, Professor Tufte mentioned printing out material when reading long emails or academic papers illustrating the principle of 'whatever works', eg indifference to the mode of consumption. Paper and ink is still a great technology. It was a privilege to be reminded of that today when I received a box set of his 4 books for the course. Wrapped in plastic, I carefully unveiled them for the course readings. Hard-bound with heft and heavyweight paper, they felt alive with their crisp catalog of nostalgic images and graphics, almost foreign. My mobile devices felt like stale web2.0 startups. Then came out the Euclid and Galileo artifacts, real museum antiquary carried by the assistants with gloved hands, surviving through time and trials to illustrate, nay, bear full measure of ET's principles of design. The subtext was palpable. For the love of books, don't forget the impression they make.

Best, tony

-- tony (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

An essay on how ebooks should be formatted (scrolling, paging, etc.):

Also features beautiful web design in its own right. I'm normally against any fixed-width layouts on the web, but this one is worth it.

-- David McCabe (email)

Response to Digital books and digital readers (Kindle, iPhone, etc.)

What say ye to this article:

-- Tod Robbins (email)

There's a device called the Entourage Edge which only entered the market in the last few weeks. It has a gray-scale e-paper reader on one side, and a full-color touch-screen netbook on the other.

I'm very interested in getting this, but I'm still looking at reviews and other options, and at suggestions from sites like this. It's targeted more towards students than casual readers. It allows the user to add their own notes and internet links to digital texts. I would love to have my Tufte books in this kind of digital format! I could read them at the cafeteria at work without worrying about spills, or in my car while waiting for the drawbridge to go down. (A great reading opportunity for us Seattleites. :)

I'd also like to add another thought to this discussion. A novelist I've loved for many years, C. J. Cherryh, has gotten together with two other novelists and started their own e-book publishing web site. It's a bit rough right now, but it's only existed for a few weeks. It will get better.

They do all the technical work of getting their books into digital formats, and they earn all the profits from the sales. It's a model other writers (Tufte?) might want to think about following. They also offer a lot of technical information about how they're doing it, and what they've learned during the process.


-- Rina (email)

Dear ET,

Here is an article describing how Tom Phillips has put his 55 years in the making art work The Humument on the iPad (

The work was inspired by Phillips reading of William Burroughs 'cut-up' technique and the basis of it is an obscure Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock published in 1892.

Although Phillips has published various extracts, artworks and texts from A Humument he explains that the iPad is the best platform yet for his work;

"I personally think that the pages look better on the iPad than they do in real life," Phillips says. "That glow is the quality you're always looking for but painting colours onto paper doesn't always work like that. Here, because of the illuminated screen, the pages look like church windows."

Best wishes


-- Matt R (email)

Is there an e-book reader with the research tools of Skim? (highlighting, note taking, scribbling, biliography app integration)

-- Niels Olson (email)

Does Mendeley have an app for iPAD or ebook readers? I use it to read scientific articles on my computer. I find that if I take notes in the "margins" with it I enjoy pdfs on my computer as much as in hand, plus it makes a handy search/bibliography program.

-- Brian Gardunia (email)

The Atavist ( is a new platform for long-form serious journalism.

About us:

The Atavist is a boutique publishing house producing original nonfiction stories for digital, mobile reading devices. We like to think of Atavist pieces as a new genre of nonfiction, a digital form that lies in the space between long narrative magazine articles and traditional books and e-books. Publishing them digitally and offering them individually -- a bit like music singles in iTunes -- allows us to present stories longer and in more depth than typical magazines, less expensive and more dynamic than traditional books.

Most importantly, it gives us new ways to tell some inventive, captivating, cinematic journalism -- and new ways for you to experience it.


-- Matt R (email)

I, too, hate reading PDFs on an e-reader.

There is a fabulous free (open source) reader called Calibre that converts books of so many formats to other formats. This allows readers to share more and to convert PDFs to the format of their favorite readers.

-- Christine (email)

Right now I would absolutely love to have Visual Explanations in electronic format. I have a plethora of electronic devices I could read it on that I'm sure would overcome any problem with resolution.

My conversion to ebooks was rapid and complete: I realised I could have my entire library at my command in any situation. Currently I happily pay premium prices to have my library in digital format.

On the subject of piracy I am a firm believer that it is only a good thing. Piracy occurs in one of two situations 1) the person is too poor to buy it anyway or 2) the purchased product is in some way inferior to the pirated one. One example of case 2 is plastering so much DRM around the product that it becomes irritating to use or incompatible with the users preferred tools. Another example is that you can't wait for delivery time.

I would recommend Stephen Fry's podcast on the subject of piracy to anyone who hasn't encountered any more balanced argument than 'lost sales' statistics.

Each person I know who uses Tufte's books would be embarrassed, frankly, to be using a pirated version. One exception being if they were only available in digital format in pirated form - as is currently the case, it appears.

I suggest even considering releasing the ebook in an open format such as PDF. Such that there is no technical barrier to passing it on to others. I would watermark it: that is enough protection as in evokes people to add a warming not to pass their copy on too widely. The benefit is increased readership; exponentially I would wager. Several times I have wanted to show the ET books to someone I feel would become a convert but that is hugely hindered by needing to be physically close to a copy at the time.

The ET books are reasonably priced and, I suspect, much of the readership is reasonably wealthy. Outside of students and a debatable percentage of others I would expect each act of piracy to come, in time, with at least one associated sale. Students, of course, later become paying customers.

A first step might be to have a button on the website to ask visitors if they are looking to get an electronic version. You could even track how many of those people then don't go on to buy a physical version. I would be interested to see the results and how they trend over time.

-- Ryan Cocks (email)

I suggest that embracing electronic versions of fine books is not an either/or thing. I love having my Tufte collection on the shelf, I've been guilty of buying the same books multiple times over the years, just because I enjoy having and giving the physical items, I like the gravitas both ethereal and physical.

But I have read my ebooks as preferred delivery media for many years now, through the full range of physical devices from Windows Pocket OS smartphones, through (physical) Kindles, to my current preferred choice of Kindle on the iPhone and iPad.

For technical books you just can't beat having your entire library with you all day every day on the iPad. For reading for enjoyment, and filling in waiting times, you can't beat having your novels - and instant bookshop - on your iPhone.

And for way-to-go stunning presentation of serious and illuminating material, check out National Geographic on Zinio. Those guys just get it, they are not trying to match beautiful paper books, they have simply delivered their art and science in a different and fabulously compelling new medium, they really do jump out of the page, hats off to them.

So back to where we started, I'm a greedy guy, and I would absolutely love to have my Tufte classics on my iPad, as well as on sitting on my shelves and coffee table.

-- Hugh McMullan (email)

I would love to have my ET books on iPad. I don't mind spilling coffee on my iPad, I can wipe it off. I would mind spilling coffee on Edward's art.

-- Angela Baxley (email)

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