Musings on Photography

PDF Books

Posted in book design, books, Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on March 25, 2009


Gordon McGregor has been thinking up a storm about PDF’s and books, and the advantages of PDF’s over physical books.

Go to his blog and read this post and then scroll back through the posts for a bit. Pretty interesting stuff, huh?

I have some thoughts, too – rather less well organized than Gordon’s are. I will, with a small apology, just sort of leap in.

I like our Kindle 2. I’ve read full length novels on it, and although I’d like the display contrast to be a bit higher, and I think there are improvements possible, I’m pretty impressed with the actual user experience of reading a book on the thing.

Part of what impresses me is the Kindle’s “bookness”. The Kindle does not pretend to be an all purpose computing device (well, maybe just an eensy bit). But because it behaves in a very book-ish way, my interactions with it play heavily on my expectations of how a book behaves. With the Kindle, I can turn pages, back and forth. I can write on the pages. I can place bookmarks. These are all things I do with books (yes, I’ve been known to write in my books. Sue me.)

So my Kindle gets to play on a whole host of behaviors that I’ve acquired in some 45 years of reading books. I’m sure there are things I do that I don’t even realize I do – books are just a part of my world, and I really can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I know books in the same way Thoreau was determined to know beans. I (and most other people) know books so well it’s hard for me to even articulate the understanding. I can, for instance, often remember about how far through a book a certain passage occurs, and I can often remember whether it falls on the left hand page or the right, at the top of the page, in the middle, or the bottom. That’s an adaptive behavior that I rely on heavily when I search a book for that passage. (and it doesn’t work on the Kindle, damn it).

I know there are things which are technically possible which the Kindle doesn’t do well. That’s ok. It’s not necessary to re-invent the book from whole cloth. We have a nice model of how books should behave, and although it’s highly dependent on a particular technology (paper, bound on one edge, printed on both sides, etc.) both the modern book and the modern literate human have sort of co-evolved over time to a point where things are pretty optimized.

One of the things I notice is that when a new technology comes around (for example, computer typesetting) the newcomers to the business (in this example, the smart folks writing typesetting software) are prone to assume that the way things are currently done is just a byproduct of the technology used. And they’re smart folks, they reason, so why not take the chance to “improve” things a bit. So they don’t bother learning about the 500+ years of accumulated wisdom about setting type. They just wing it. How hard can it be to plop the characters on the page, after all? You just stuff the words onto the line until it’s full, and then you start a new line.

And so we got typesetting software that did a dreadful job. Rivers. Widows, Orphans. All sorts of horrid stuff. And slowly, the world of computer typesetting came to realize that maybe, just maybe, those old guys who set that lead type might have figured a thing or two out in the 500 odd years moveable type had been in use. Amazing, I know. If those old guys were so smart, how come they didn’t have computers?

Same thing with houses. Architects are always coming up with the house of the future, and it has little to do with a right rectangular structure with a peaked roof on it. And somehow, despite all this innovation in the architectural world, people go right on building rectangular houses with peaked roofs, and the secret is this: a rectangular house with a peaked roof is a *really good solution* to the “how shall we build a house” question.

Same thing, I suspect, with the design of book-like things. We’ve had books for a long time. We’ve tried scrolls, and we’ve tried various sorts of bindings, and we’ve tried a lot of different things. And we’ve come to a point where books (at least in the left to right world) are usually bound on the left edge, and the pages turn from right to left, and the text starts at the top and runs down each page. Such a book is the rectangular house of the book world. It is ubiquitous for the simple reason that it almost always works as nearly as well as the perfect solution, and in most cases it’s superior to any other solution. Not always, but often enough that before we go to make a book that does something different, we should probably think really hard about why we’re doing that.

PDF’s (and Kindles) are like books in a lot of important ways. They have a heritage of bookness. We can turn to physical books with paper pages for a lot of clues about what is going to work well, and what isn’t.

So I read Gordon’s enthusiasm for the potential of PDF book-like things, and I am excited. And at the same time, I cringe when I realize that the photographic world is soon going to be inundated with things which are like the letters and flyers and documents we got when everyone first got their hands on a computer with word-processing software. We had 180 fonts in 17 different sizes, and by God, we were going to use all of them on every single page or die trying. And the result was, um, sub-optimal.

So I wonder how you tread the safe path between stodgy avoiding of innovation, and using all the fonts and all the sizes.

6 Responses

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  1. Ove said, on March 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    You’re right. Books, in the format we read them today, have been around for a while now. Before books there where papyrus rolls and engraved stones, as the rune stones here in Scandinavia, so I believe the book is a rather perfected invention as is. I believe so for stories, anyway. Other types of content may very well fit into other formats, like web pages for instance. It depends how the readers are likely to take in and react on what is read. But most stories still fit best in the old school book format.

  2. Martin Doonan said, on March 26, 2009 at 3:54 am

    I agree, for the specific words on page type of book. Don’t see any solution better than we have now.

    But for photography, I still think it’s worth exploring some other ways. I often get the feeling that the left bound, double side paradigm is sub-optimal for photographs. Sometimes I wonder whether top or bottom edge bindings would work better, and are there ways to get over the blank left page – maybe a top corner, rotating binding would be good?

    I don’t know.

    I also think Gordon may be on to something with pdf as it relates to displaying photos.

  3. Earl said, on March 26, 2009 at 3:59 am

    I agree that the current form of books has been around a long time and is what we are comfortable with. However, I can’t help but think that there was a day long ago when someone looked at all the scrolls and decided they were going to try using loose sheet material and bind them together along one edge.

    They must of had their share of naysayers and critics. I’m open to new possibilities but it needs to prove real advantages–not just be different.

  4. Gordon McGregor said, on March 26, 2009 at 5:57 am

    I don’t know how to do that tagging thing (or if it works wordpress to blogger) but my last post was a response

  5. John Taylor said, on March 26, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    lol! love this post i’m very much a book person and old enough to know better than to use evry font possible (i hand set type in high school and used a swivel knife to cut out patterns for the silk screen room)

  6. Mike C. said, on April 1, 2009 at 10:39 am

    For a nice (free) way to present PDF books check out Issuu at — it’s especially useful that you can embed the fancy reader into your own website or blog.

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