two cats in a bathtub

PAPER SMELLS NICE I READ IT IN THE TUB

These are my cats, hanging out in the tub.
The following is the first draft of my thesis proposal, more or less as posted to ITP’s internal project database on Thursday morning. I wrote this in haste and have (still) not had the stomach to reread it, so be hereby forewarned that it may be incoherent, ridiculous, or, of course, both.

Thesis Statement

Every newspaper article on ebooks, in tweet form:
Article: ‘Ebooks might be okay?’
Comments: ‘PAPER SMELLS NICE I READ IT IN THE TUB’
—Liza Daly (@liza), 7:11 PM Dec 15th, 2009


I would like to explore ways in which electronic reading interfaces, both software and hardware, can improve the reader’s experience, either making up for the shortcomings of electronic devices as compared with codex-style paper books or enhancing the text beyond what we normally think of as a book. I am not so much interested in the interactive or multimedia book, which some have predicted since the dawn of hypertext would storm the world but that many actual readers merely find overwhelming, as in ways of presenting traditional single-thread texts that take advantage of electronic presentation well enough that the medium’s drawbacks are outweighed.

Personal Statement

I’ve always been devoted to books, both in their familiar paper format and in the platform-independent sense (for example, most of the novels that I read nowadays are in the form of audiobooks, or the occasional e-book on my iPod or phone). I have worked in and around books for most of my adult life, as a bookseller, an administrator at literary nonprofit organizations, a proofreader, a managing editor, a text designer, a typesetter, and more. And although at several forks in my career I had the option of working in far more lucrative Web development field instead (even after the dot-com bubble burst, Internet jobs paid more than publishing), I knew that if the job didn’t have anything to do with books, I was likely to lose interest and, thereby, my gruntlement, as well.

I started learning typesetting and HTML at the same time, a little over a decade ago, and it has always seemed to me natural that in most cases, a document should be conceived of as independent from its container. Although SGML and similar markup schemes have been used in the production of reference and technical book projects (e.g., encyclopedias, dictionaries, computer books) for many years, most people in the industry whom I’ve worked with still seem to be completely unfamiliar with the concept. Semantic markup applied at an early stage—or even as the manuscript is written—can make the job of nearly everyone in the book production field easier, and I have tried to evangelize for this workflow whenever possible.

Like, apparently, most people who’ve worked in publishing, however, although e-books and dedicated e-reader devices have both been around for years, my response until recently has been something along the lines of “La-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you.” Now that products such as the Kindle have started to receive so much attention, however (a level of coverage that many in the publishing industry believe exaggerates the actual sales of both devices and e-books), I have chosen to take my fingers out of my ears and listen to what those of my colleagues who embraced the possibilities of digital book publishing from the start are saying. I have also been investigating some of the new e-book formats, both as a reader and as a designer.

I applied to ITP in part because I did not see a future in the work I was doing at the time (which was art-directing for an online magazine), and because although I enjoy book design and typesetting immensely, many publishers think of design as a cost rather than an investment and are forever cutting back positions and resources. Book design is, essentially, a conservative practice, as the most successful text designs are usually those that are invisible to the reader and that most closely observe the last five hundred years of typographic convention. I wanted to take some time out to learn new skills and try to prepare to do more challenging and creative work in the future. What I’ve found in my time at ITP, though, is that it is still difficult to hold my attention on projects that don’t in some way relate to books. So a thesis concerning e-books and e-readers, about which so much is yet to be discovered, was the natural choice.

Research

  • Electronic Popables by Jie Qi, High-Low Tech, MIT Media Lab
  • Eucalyptus e-reading software by Things Made Out Of Other Things
  • Calibre open-source e-book manager, by Kovid Goyal
  • Sophie Reader (firmly in the irritation category), Institute for the Future of the Book

Work Description

I would like to mock up, probably in something like Flash, several versions of an e-reader interface that attempt to improve on aspects of the electronic reading experience. User testing will be essential to the project, and much as I would love to end up with a real application for Android, iPhone, or Kindle, the final form of the thesis may be more a report of research results than a usable thing.

Comments and suggestions extremely, desperately welcome.

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