The option that wasn’t

Kobo advanced settings

One of the things I like—a unique feature, as far as I’ve seen—about Kobo’s e-reader software for iPhone OS is that it gives you a choice between vertical scrolling and traditional pagination. Because, really, what do pages mean on a digital reader where the text can reflow according to user preferences? Great. So, I selected vertical scrolling.

Problem is, even if you choose this setting, you will still run into page breaks:

Kobo pagination arrows

The arrows; the dreaded arrows. They seem to occur at the end of each section of the book. Probably wherever the ePub is split into a separate HTML document.

Why? Surely there’s some way around this. It’s jarring mentally to switch back and forth between scrolling and paging. It’s more annoying than just paging through—more like when long articles online are split into long pages, instead of letting you scroll all the way down. Is it annoying because it messes with your sense of how much you have left to read? Or is it annoying because you have to switch gestures, from swiping to tapping, in order to move on?

Either way, it seems like sloppy design to me, and it gets on my nerves.

The Zemanta plugin I’m using with WordPress brought to my attention this recent article at OUPblog: “The Book, the Scroll, and the Web,” by Dennis Baron. Baron cites research suggesting that for some people, pagination is preferable to scrolling—

There is one advantage of the book over the scroll that may apply to the computer. According to psychologists Christopher A. Sanchez and Jennifer Wiley, poor readers have more trouble understanding scrolled text on a computer than digital text presented in a format resembling the traditional printed page. But these researchers found that better readers, those with stronger working memories, understand scrolls and pages equally well.

Emphasis mine. This link between reading comprehension, pagination, and memory is particularly interesting to me because of a conversation I had with my mom the other day, in which I was explaining how reading text on a very small screen, such as an iPad Touch, makes it more difficult to find your way around a book. “You know how, when you’re trying to look for something you’ve already read, you can usually visualize its being on the left-hand page, sort of toward the top, and that narrows down where you need to search for it as you page back through . . . ?”

I’ve described this process to dozens of people in the last few months, as I’ve tried to explain what my thesis project is about, and until Thursday, everyone had nodded in recognition of the phenomenon I described. Mom, however, just looked at me blankly. Apparently, even though she’s a very visual person—an artist—she doesn’t retain that kind of spatial memory of what she reads at all. And it’s worth noting that my mother has developed rather serious problems with her working memory in recent years. In my experience, her memory problem is not so much that she can’t remember things as it is that she can’t let go of them—she seems to remember the important thing she wanted to tell you, in most cases, but she can’t remember that she’s already told it to you three times in the last hour. Mom hasn’t been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she’s been prescribed some of the favorite medications for it. She’s definitely got problems with her working memory, and from her reaction to my description of how I find my way around text spreads, I’d say that it strongly affects how she reads.

Is there anything an e-reading application can do to make it easier for my mom to find her way around a book? That’s the million-dollar question.

Baron’s article concludes,

The screen displays on e-readers like the Kindle look like paged books, because that’s what marketers think will lure analog readers to the digital world. The iPad’s book reader even simulates the experience of page turning, with the curl of the page moving back and forth in direct response to the reader’s finger on the touch screen — a nice special effect but one that readers may ultimately find intrusive and annoying when they’re trying to access the next chunk of text.

At some point, though, electronic books are likely to develop a new format, not codex- or scroll-based, but something else again, a format taking fuller advantage of the hyperlinks and multimedia capabilities of the computer than they do now. When this happens, the question of codex v. scroll may take on the quaint sophistry of the latke/hamentaschen debate, and researchers will shift their attention to the cognitive advantages and disadvantages of text that talks and moves and jumps to hyperspace as well as reads from left to right, or in the case of torahs, from right to left. And that’s when ebooks will stand a real chance of eating into the market share of conventional books.

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