Summer 2000

Not browsing but reading

Is there an alternative to scrolling text and gap-toothed HTML?

Despite its omnipresence in daily life, the Internet seems a neglected subject in contemporary literature. We wait anxiously for one of the giants of modern fiction to produce the Great Internet Novel; perhaps Martin Amis is already at work on a fiery tome investigating the new tensions in the human psyche wrought by the e-revolution? One thing however seems certain: when the Great Internet Novel finally arrives, it will appear as ink on paper and not as a stream of electronic pulses on a publisher’s pay--per-view website. Because despite the efforts of media barons, electronic publishers and e-literature enthusiasts to persuade us to read online, human beings appear reluctant to read more than a few lines of text on a computer screen. And this is understandable; the process is usually arduous, unsatisfactory and probably one of those things like the one-legged high jump, simply not meant to be done. The death of print, stridently predicted by Web evangelists at the outset of the cyber revolution, has not happened yet. Nor does it seem likely to; e-books have not supplanted printed books and e-zines have failed to stem the seemingly endless flow of glossy magazines.

But a trawl round sites offering online literature tends to confuse the issue. The current e-book smash-hit is Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet: 16,000 words for $2.50, and apparently no shortage of takers. In the interest of research, I set out to find a site willing to let me read the master’s foray into e-horror. I ended up at www.glassbook.com, which offered me the chance to download the Glassbook Reader, a mini-browser utilising Adobe PDF technology and offering what the developers call ‘a high-fidelity reading experience’, which it does. The Glassbook Reader downloaded King’s short story in less than five minutes. The appearance is pleasant, typographic detail is excellent and in all details, bar the faint milky-ness common to all on-screen information, it faithfully replicates the character and style of the printed page. The Glassbook Reader comes with a number of features: a zoom function; a dictionary; and links to bookshops and e-book distributors.

Lisa Clark, Creative Director of Glassbook, who has a background in conventional magazine design, is attempting to solve the problems of reading online: ‘When I design a book for an e-book device,’ she explains, ‘I have to change the parameters a bit. Through experimenting I found that leading between lines must be ample and the typeface is often larger than it would be for print.’ Elsewhere, more highbrow literary sites offer electronic alternatives to inky periodicals. www.spikemagazine.com and www.richmondreview.co.uk are brave attempts to make palatable the experience of reading large amounts of text online. Both lack the poise and elegance of www.lrb.co.uk, the site of the London Review of Books, and a paradigm of readability on the Internet. A more adventurous literary experience is offered at Electronic Book Review. A site for those interested in the literary potential of hypertext, EBR sets out to challenge the ‘hegemony of narrative’. It founders on the familiar problems characteristic of all websites offering ex-tensive amounts of text: the mediating effect of the computer screen itself; the mild nausea induced by scrolling through acres of type; and the gap-toothed rawness of HTML text.

But as editorial content comes to be seen as the magic ingredient that separates successful sites from bad sites, and as more and more communication migrates to the online medium, designers are faced with the challenge of making online text readable. Designers from a print media background (surely the majority of those currently engaged in the design of websites) face a special handicap when confronting Web design. The Web challenges one of the fundamental impulses of the graphic designer – the desire for total control. Print designers habitually control every aspect of the design process: photographs are retouched to unblemished perfection; typography is regulated in every detail; scanning and reprographic technology ensures pin-sharp resolution; paper and ink selection is made with scientific accuracy; printing and finishing is monitored with surgical care. On the Internet, little of this precision is possible.

Flash technology offers one alternative. This designer friendly programme allows for the accurate representation of fonts, and a high degree of typographical control. But despite millions of downloads, Flash is still not universal and it is not the answer to all the problems concerning readability. Of course, web technology, driven by some of the most powerful commercial forces in the modern world, advances rapidly. New improved browsers promise greater control and flexibility, while increased bandwidth – the Holy Grail of the Internet – offers improvement to both the look and the functionality of tomorrow’s websites.

Yet until then, perhaps our only true friend in cyber space is the print button. My new Glassbook reader comes with a print button, but when I hit it, nothing happened. Riding the Bullet remains unread.

Adrian Shaughnessy, Intro, London

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.


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