Real Pages Are All About Flow

I love printed pages. They are objects, bound together, presented for sequential consumption, but also ideal for non-linear exploration. For most of my life, pages seemed like the perfect set of facets for reading and exploring books.

But something has happened to the notion of the page, something new. It’s something glaringly obvious to me, and subliminally evident to everyone else who reads anything digital at all. Our notion of pages must now become a perfect one. We now think of pages, printed or not, as containers themselves. They may still be part of something else, but in digital form, their boundaries can stretch to accommodate their contents, whereas in print, they might shrink to fit their packaging.

In print, pages still have a fixed size. That size is determined by their package or container, which is in turn determined by marketing budgets, distribution costs, and industry-standard “formats” such as Mass Market Paperback, Trade Fiction, Hardback, etc. But on the web, pages are self-contained things. A web page is an encyclopedia entry, a word definition, a book chapter, a news story, whatever. Whatever it is, it’s all on the same page.

This illustrates an important distinction between pages and pagination. Pagination is the process of fitting an author’s work into predefined, separate areas to be bound together. It’s the process of artificially creating pages. Why artificially? Because it exists only as a solution to the problems of putting ink on paper and shipping it around to stores, not as a real concept that authors think about. Real pages, it seems, would better fit what authors really meant for them.

For centuries, the linked arts of typography and printing have evolved toward presenting words and pictures in the best way possible, within the constraints of industry. Margins, kerning, leading, point-size, drop caps, justification. Fonts. These are all cost factors as well as design choices. The practice of grouping things in a visually appealing and/or meaningful way has evolved according to the physical dimensions of paper, the space constraints of shipping and retail, and the necessary shared standards of operation needed by multiple cooperating vendors in the supply chain.

Not to say all that effort has been wasted. On the contrary, it’s time to realize it’s about to be liberated. Pages are now as fluid as type itself, their size no longer necessarily constrained by containers. In other words, print is not the only option, and neither is fixed page size. Even the apparent limitations of screen dimensions need not constrain the dimensions of a page anymore — screens are simply used as our windows on something larger.

I love paper books. I always will. But what I love more than books themselves is the experience of actually reading them. And for that, I care less about the material in my hands and more about the flow. Flow can mean many things, but when I say I love the flow of reading a book, I’m referring to the stream of glyphs, words, phrases, sentences, thoughts and paragraphs that enter my brain as I “consume” that book. You can see the kind of flow I mean when you watch people in the act of reading. There are those who trace along the printed page with an index finger. Those who lay a bookmark across the page and slowly advance it. Those who move their mouth as they read. Those who do not visibly mark their progress, but block out all distractions giving the impression that they have some kind of mental laser that they’re following across each word. You can see flow happening in the intensity with which some people read.

Most importantly, you can see it in the urgency of page-turning. The flick that happens as the head resets itself to home position, the way the eyes quickly flick back and up and resume scanning. As a printed page is flipped, all components — book, head, and eyes — are adjusted to accommodate the flow. Meanwhile, the brain hides what is usually an abrupt break in a line, a thought, a sentence, a paragraph, a gap that’s unnatural, in the same way the gap between letters is unnatural. It depends on speed in the same way that letter association depends on kerning, the spacing between the letters. As with the space between letters and words, our mind compensates for the space between pages so flow is perceived as continual. It’s like watching a film strip. We forget about the fact that we’re seeing a series of still images, give ourselves over to the illusion of motion, and subsequently, to another reality. In the words of John Gardner on fiction, “a vivid and continuous dream.” In that sense, page turn speed, if slowed down too much, can frustrate us, as it did on early e-ink devices — particularly on the first Kindle, which on page turn would invert, flicker and flash, and then force us to wait until the next block of text appeared.

There are natural flows within what we read: the flows intended by authors. (The section dividers I’ve added to this essay are an example.) A flow for an author is rarely the same as the printed page we think of as readers, or the specifically-sized printed page that the publisher thinks of as the producer of the book. For an author, a flow is just another unit, referred to as a chunk, a passage, a section, or a chapter. It’s something one or more paragraphs in length. In experimental prose or poetry, it could be some smaller fragment. Sometimes it maps one-to-one with the page itself. The most beautiful books are designed that way, with the author’s intentions exactly aligned with the page boundaries. But in print, very often it has nothing to do with the author’s intended structure.

On the web, an author’s intended flow can almost always be mapped to a single page. A web page is a type of flow that we’re all accustomed to reading now, and our ideal notion of it is that it can take any size, but that it’s important the sizing accommodate just exactly what it’s meant to contain. It could be a single essay, a chapter of a book, a long news article, an outline, a TPS report, some branding copy, a large quotation, anything really, as long as whatever it contains is not artificially cut into pieces and placed on other pages. We have now come to solidly expect this in our web reading habits, and anyone putting their material online expects its web page equivalents to conform to their notion of its inherent structure.

The flow of reading these single pages on the web, which often contain much more material than would fit on standard printed pages, is typically controlled by scrolling. Imagine a window in a wall that you can easily move up or down, left or right, to get a different view of the front yard. We don’t try to size the front yard down so it all fits into that small window.

In the recent past, our control over the movement of that window happened through the mouse. New generations being raised on touch screen tablets probably find the mouse very strange. They probably notice the degree of abstraction involved between the movement of a scroll wheel or the dragging motion on a scroll bar, the movement of a tethered device that controls a small arrow on the screen versus a touch or swipe on the thing itself, the material you’re seeing in the window.

Imagine if instead of moving that window around your wall, you could reach out and push the lawn back, swipe it to one side so you can see the big oak tree on the corner, swipe it back over to look down the cul-de-sac. Suddenly, you’re interacting directly with the thing you want to look at. There’s no abstraction involved at all.

That’s where we are now in the way we interact with digital books.

Except not quite, not unless the books are in a browser window. If they’re being viewed on a device or in an app, then chances are we’re still looking at facsimiles of printed pages. The facsimiles are painfully uncanny. But at least we can touch them, move them to the side, draw highlights on them like we would in a textbook. That’s somehow more important than giving them weight or smell, although we may still miss those things.

Flow is also a printing concept. Just like the nature of the molten lead that was once used to cast the letters of a font, it refers to the conformance of sections of text to certain pre-defined areas and containers. A single flow fits into the margins of a box, and that box may continue across a number of pages. The simplest example is a book with one column of text per page. The column area is defined across a number of pages, with the same size box on each page. The box on each page continues the same flow of text. If the flow doesn’t entirely fit, more pages must be added to the book in the design and layout process to accommodate the rest of it and avoid overflow.

When the output is intended for the web, or for Kindle, or for other e-book platforms, the text is said to be “reflowable.” This means it may go into any box, in any system, with any configuration of kerning, font size, leading, etc, and when the box sizing or the parameters of the font change, it must “reflow.” In other words, box sizing and page count are not pre-determined variables. Often, neither is the font. This “on-the-fly” process of configuring everything that was once only in the control of the printing house has posed immense difficulties for an industry long-accustomed to operating on predictable and fixed physicalities.

Recently, Apple quietly introduced a new feature in its iBooks app. It’s buried in the format preferences, and it’s a scrollable view of the whole book.

For those who don’t know, iBooks reproduces the look and feel of a physical book to a fault, as do many e-reading applications. In iBooks, you turn the page with a very similar motion to the one used for printed pages, dragging a finger from the margin toward the page center. This produces a page-turn animation, complete with shadows, as the text of the next page is revealed. The future vector for that design approach is a crinkly sound coming from your speakers and a smell emitter that puffs synthetic pulpy, musty odor at you. It sounds like ad absurdum, because it is, and would be — which is why Jony Ive has started to push Apple away from skeuomorphism.

I suspect the new view available in iBooks is also a move in that direction, in the direction away from trying endlessly to reproduce print on something that’s inherently not print-like.

Switching to the new view presents the entire book as if it were one long scrolling web page, a single flow, aligned in the experiential sense, the authorial, and the technical. For the technician, it’s no surprise. In fact, it’s the preferred way to present the text since in the brain of the machine, it’s all one flow too, even if it’s composed of other flows. This is because the underlying technology that has always been at the core of iBooks and every other modern e-reader is — drum roll —a web browser.

Such a feature has yet to arrive on the Kindle, but I predict it will. For those wedded to Kindles, or those who are against ever using iBooks, here’s how it feels to use the new feature:

It feels like using a web page.

It does change the experience of reading a book. It does make it less like reading a paper book. But at the same time, it makes it more like reading a book. Unlike pagination on a mobile screen, it doesn’t feel like an imitation of anything else. It just feels like a web page. But it’s a book. And somehow those two things go together better this way. It feels like reading something long in Safari’s Reader mode. It feels right.

Like any change, at first, it’s jarring to have an application suddenly behave like a different application. You will attempt at least a couple times to swipe the page to the side. You’ll also have some initial struggle with the lack of vertical boundaries. At first, I found myself first trying to create my own pagination, moving the page up about a screen full at a time. As I adjusted more, this behavior got more gradual, until I was pushing it up only a bit, almost line by line. Sometimes I was doing the equivalent of what people do when they place a bookmark across their page and slowly advance it downward as they read. The nice thing was that nothing was set. If I was reading something with very short paragraphs, I could push more of them past at once. If I was reading something with long, sustained passages, I could nudge it line by line, or sentence by sentence, depending on the distraction level of the subway car I was on.

I’m not suggesting that pages will disappear from our experience. But pagination, as an artifact of centuries of non-scrollable books, will become glaringly anachronistic. Again, the distinction between pagination and pages is that pagination breaks up content in ways the industry demands, while pages break up content in exactly the way the author intends. As pagination gradually disappears from the overall experience of reading books, pages will be valued even more. And each one will be expected to contain exactly what the author wanted there: nothing more, and nothing less.



Tech and dirt, philosophy/fabrication. From the midwest, where pastoral/dirt mixes with academic/tech, and interesting things emerge. Based in NYC.

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