Recessional: Different Tools for Different Jobs

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We’ve been talking about “books” without always being clear about what a book is. There are different kinds of books, intended for different purposes. We use a novel or a biography very differently from the way we use a dictionary, for instance. As a book designer, I’m used to thinking about this when designing a book: the optimum typography for a reference work may be quite different from the best typographic treatment of continuous text that we want to immerse ourselves in. A cookbook or a technical manual needs to impart discrete nuggets of information quickly and clearly, and to make it obvious what the relationship of those nuggets is to each other. An encyclopedia has to present an enormous trove of information in ways that you can dip into and locate the part that you’re looking for, and make the bit that you’re reading easy to absorb. A book that’s telling a story usually runs in a single direction, from start to finish; the typography ought to invite the reader into the page and then get out of the way, letting the author’s words go straight into the reader’s mind.

When we talk about the future of reading, and the future of books, we have to realize that this is a multifarious future: we’ll be reading one kind of book differently from the way we read another one, and what’s appropriate for one kind of reading isn’t appropriate for another.

As so often, in so many areas, there’s no one answer. We’ll need different tools for different jobs.

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