Sunday, February 6, 2011

E-Books in the Gutter

Last week I bought a book and discovered something interesting.  I had $5 in Borders-bucks that was about to expire and an upcoming trip to CA.  I reasoned that I could pick up a cheap paperback for just a couple of bucks and read it on the trip.  [I prefer not to take my good books on a trip, because they're sometimes too large to fit in my "fanny pack" and/or they'll get too beat-up in the process.  I also like to read something on the lighter and more exciting side while I travel.]  The book I was looking for (All the Pretty Ponies) was not available in a mass-market paperback, and after looking at it I decided I didn't want to read it anyway.  I wandered the store for a ridiculously long time and finally stumbled over Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  The mass-market paperback at $7.99 was in my price range and less than half the cost of the $16.99 Trade paperback.  Done.

Now I'm enjoying the story and hating the book, odd as that may sound.  Norrell and Strange is 1000 pages in mass-market format.  That's 1000 pages with tiny light print that flows annoyingly close to the binding -- so close in a book so thick, that I find myself guessing at the last few letters on each line of the left pages, and the the first few of each line on the right, since I can't flatten the book enough to see down into that dark crevice.

I tried finding out what this crevice is called.  The on-line visual dictionary I consulted proved unequal to the task, and it tended to crash my browser in the process.  I would have consulted a reference librarian, but it's after hours....  At the start of this post I wrote that I discovered something interesting:  it was not the name of this word swallower.  I have (for now, anyway) had to make up a name for this space.  I call it a page pit, much like an armpit, or an elbow pit or a knee pit.  I will find out the name for this region of a bound page.  If any of my readers know, please enlighten me.  [My brother Ken reminded me that it is properly called the gutter, which fact I knew in a former life and had since forgotten.]

So let's move on to what I did discover.  If I hadn't been so cheap I would have sprung for the trade paperback, which had approximately the same number of pages but the pages themselves are pleasantly larger.  The reason I didn't is not just that I was looking for a minimal expenditure over the Borders-bucks, but that the trade pb was too large for me to take on the trip.  As it is, I won't be taking Norrell on the trip with me, I'll be taking the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.  It's not the ideal book for a trip, but it's a good physical size, the printing is much more eye-friendly, and I certainly won't be trapped in the page pits.

But that's still not what I discovered.  What I discovered is another good thing about e-books:  e-books don't have pit-text because they don't have page-pits.  They don't need them.  In fact, they don't need a whole host of tricks that the printers and publishers have been using to save paper and ink.  They don't need to single-space after a period (but that's a religious war that I won't enter into today).  They don't need to reduce the size of the print to keep the price down.  They don't need to reduce the interline spacing, or use cheaper paper, or refuse to start chapters on a new page.  None of that has any effect on the price of an e-book.

It has always seemed strange to me that (good) computer programmers know the value of whitespace and value it more than printers/publishers.  Now I realize that's not the case:  we all value it, but it's always been free for programmers, and it is only now becoming free for printers and publishers.

The only good thing I can think of about page pits (in a volume where the printing doesn't go very far into them) is that it's probably good for your eyes to have to change focus over the gentle curve of the page as you enter or leave the pit on each line.  That may be a stretch, but our eye's are amazing machines, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that such a slight focal change is beneficial.

Let's hear it for ciliary muscles (which focus the lenses in your eyes), whitespace, and, of course, generously sized or nonexistent page pits gutters.

1 comment:

  1. 1,000 pages. Yikes! Not for me! I'm still having problems with my eyes, but lately I've been spending more time writing than reading books. (Deadline 3/1). Funny, I started writing because I loved to read. Now that I'm writing professionally, I don't have time to read!