Books Without Pages: Reading Beyond the Skeuomorph

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Skeuomorphism, the idea that digitally designed “objects” should mimic their real-world counterparts, is decidedly out. Ask any designer of digital anything these days.

In 2012, designers, amid much controversy, hailed the dawn of the “post-linen” era (linen had been a trademark texture of Apple’s mobile devices, per an edict from on high), which was taken by many to be synonymous with the “post-Jobs” one. (See this October 2012 New York Times piece by Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton to learn more.)

When Jobs died, his “spiritual partner at Apple,” Jony Ive, was named Senior Vice President of Design and, with the announcement of iOS 7 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple declared the death of skeuomorphism.

Still, in 2014, skeuomorphs abound—in Apple software and beyond. Think of all those icons on your laptop and mobile device screens: the address book, the camera lens, the time-honored trash can. And there are auditory skeuomorphs: the shutter-click sound emitted by most camera phones when taking a picture. The click, of course, doesn’t come from a mechanical shutter on phones with camera apps but from a sound file in the phone’s operating system. Ditto for “analog” mobile phone ringtones, which hark back to a bygone era in the evolution of physical phone technology.

But tying digital experiences to physical ones, in addition to creating usability challenges (in music production, a physical knob or dial is much easier to operate than its digital representation), may limit our creativity as we envision future books. And the most obvious “knob” of digital books has to be the animated turns of deckled pages on tablet-based e-books.

Page turns are fast losing favor with designers and readers alike, who are choosing, where possible, the “swiping” alternative. Swiping from right to left moves the screen’s content in that same direction. I almost said, “Swiping from right to left turns the page,” which just goes to show that I’m still as stuck in the old skeuomorphic paradigm as anyone.

Must we see page turns to know that we’re reading a book? Do they provide a needed transition—a pause or breather between units of text—on which we’ve come to rely? Are they a comfort? A nostalgia? What might happen if we stopped defining books as units of thought broken down into other units called “pages”? Could dropping this convention give way to shedding other skeuomorphs endemic to e-books and free our imagination further? In a future no longer concerned with skeuomorphic concordances, can a “real page-turner” become a “real swiper”?

We certainly don’t need to continue representing facing pages; they’re an artifact of physical bookbinding and serve no practical or aesthetic function. But I think that digital narratives will always need to be broken down into discrete, quantifiable bytes—both for easy reference and to help orient the reader and give her a sense of her progress through them.

Pagination seems key in that it manages expectations. Before we begin reading, we want to have a sense of what our time commitment will be, so that we can make an informed choice about engaging with the content. With physical books, the very heft of the tome often settles these questions, however imprecisely. And we can always flip to the back of the book for a page count.

Likewise pages (and lines of pages) act as critical points of reference and orientation. While reading, we might make a mental note of an interesting passage on page 43 and then refer back to it a bit later. Or we may want to reference the passage in a critical exegesis. One of the boons of digital book design is that the reader may choose to adjust font size to their need or preference, thereby customizing the reading experience. But changing font sizes reflows text and alters page and line counts, making such referencing and orientation a fraught exercise.

Digital book designers are faced with a choice: include a progress bar, which removes dependence on page numbers but confounds easy referencing of the content, or include pagination. The latter yields a further choice: assign page numbers to every new page of the reflow (so if the 450-page book is now 7,000 pages, reflect that in the pagination) or tie the maximum page count to that of the physical version of the book, or to a particular font size. In the former case, page count can be daunting, and a deterrent to engagement. In the latter, any increase in font size will maintain the 450 pages, but the reader may now be faced with multiple “page 4s” to accommodate the fixed count. Clunky. Confusing. Unreferenceable. And we’ve once again tied ourselves to the physical world!

Good creative solutions for digital books, which offer no tactile cues, remain elusive. How do we move beyond the page paradigm? It may seem a small matter, but I think that examining our attachment to features of physical books—discerning which are artifacts of physical production and which are fundamentally supportive of the reading process in any format—can be a first step toward imagining future books whose integrity isn’t compromised by the drag of ancestral ties.

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