A typographic critique of the Kindle

I bought the Amazon Kindle right when it came out in late 2007. It’s gotten an increasing amount of press since then, culminating in Oprah’s gushing endorsement of it on October 24, 2008. (The NYTimes recently wrote a piece about e-books which attributed their rise in interest, in part, to the sales of the Kindle.) Since Amazon does not release sales numbers for whatever reason (perhaps because they are such a miniscule part of their business) analysts are estimating that there are somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 in circulation at the end of 2008. Anecdotally, I’ve been noticing it more and more in airplanes and airports, and I’ve been hearing reports from random friends that their parents swear by them now.

To be honest, I marveled at the thing when I first got it, mostly because of the Whispernet feature which allows you to download a book on the fly, say, on your way to the subway, rather than stopping by a bookstore or library, (just what I need — more encouragement not to engage in planning ahead) but the visual design of the thing was wholly disappointing, and thus, it began to grow dust, languishing unused next to my bedside reading table. The Kindle had somehow failed to capture the simple aesthetic pleasure of reading.

“Flow State”

Jeff Bezos, in his interview with Charlie Rose about the Kindle, remarked that his team’s number one design objective in the Kindle was to achieve the “flow state” of reading — that is, the ability of the physical object of the book, the paper, the ink, the binding, to disappear when the reader enters the world created by the author’s words.

I am certain it’s easier to get into this “flow state” when you’ve got something in front of you that you really, truly want to read. And on this score, Kindle (and Amazon) should have things pretty much locked up (literally) in their almost infinite catalog of selections from the major publishers. Granted, this probably took a ton of negotiating on the part of Amazon with all of the major publishers for distribution rights, but when you’re Amazon, I’m sure you can pretty much walk into the room with a baseball bat and say, “We’re doing this. You all on board? Great. Sign here.”

Note: There are some technical limitations that are endemic to all ebook readers that use E Ink technology (or at least that I am attributing to limitations in E Ink) that I won’t discuss here, like the supremely annoying black screen when you change pages and the menu and windowing UI (though the new the new Sony PRS-700 has a touch screen interface which is much more elegant).

First, the good parts

Over the holidays, I was in the Charlotte airport, staring down an hour delay in my flight, and I walked by a bookseller where I noticed Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Ascent of Money, which I had forgotten was at the top of my list of books to read over the holidays. I opened the cover and balked when I saw that it was selling for $29.95. Somewhat in price shock, I marched back to my luggage, took out my Kindle, and I downloaded a sample chapter. After reading a few clicks, I was hooked and determined to have it, especially after seeing the Kindle price: $9.99.

Note the price differential (list price of $29.99 and Kindle price of $9.99)

Note the price differential (list price of $29.95 and Kindle price of $9.99)

$29.95 – $9.99 = $19.96.

Which begs the question: What’s that extra $19.96 paying for? In addition to the paper, the ink and printing, the cover material, the binding, and bailing out a floundering publishing industry, I realized that much of it goes into something that may or may not break your flow state: good typography.

Whither Good Typography?

If the web is 95% typography, then e-books are somewhere in the range of 98%. And in my wide and varied research, I think I can safely say that the reason reading long texts on screens hurts so much is that there are very few people who can set type properly anymore (that, and annoying banner ads and vertical scrolling, but we will address these problems in another post). Unfortunately, this is the case with the Kindle as well. The font they’ve chosen for all body text is Caecelia, drawn by Peter Matthias Noordzij. It’s a smart choice, since it’s an Egyptian (slab serif), so you get the advantage of serifs without having to worry about the slope of the foot getting killed at smaller sizes, but the way it’s treated in the Kindle is, well, unfortunate.

Lists

Basic component of HTML rendered rather thoughtlessly by the Kindle:

Kindle tripping over an ordered list

Kindle tripping over an ordered list

Images

The resolution of E Ink technology is purportedly around 300 dpi. In practice, or at least the way the Kindle renders images, it reminds one of the early days of the Palm, or of mezzotint. For instance, this graph below probably has some important labels, but no matter how hard I squint I can’t make out the text. I wonder if this were printed at 300 dpi on a laserprinter if it would be legible. I am sure the crappiness of the image quality is due to the fact that with E Ink you have only black or white “pixel” molecules with which to render text or image, and so it doesn’t matter if you have 300 dpi, you still need some levels of grey in order to do proper anti-aliasing and image reproduction. (I bet the image format on the Kindle is BMP.)

Not just a crappy photo; you actually can't read the type in real life

Not just a crappy photo; the type is illegible in real life.

Captions

You would think someone on the Kindle team would have been able to spend a little time to create a style for caption text to differentiate them from the body copy. (The same is true of block quotes — no differentiating style.)  I don’t know if this particular book was rushed through without any styling or what, but in the immortal words of Duke Leto (in the David Lynch version of Dune), “Really damn sloppy!”

Awkward line breaking on centered captions

Awkward line breaking on centered captions

Rivers

It looks like by default, the Kindle likes to justify its pages of text. This gives you an even rag on the right side instead of a ragged, irregular one. The pros and cons of this can be debated. There are two variables that need to be adjusted for justifying wholesale large swaths of text:

  1. Font size
  2. Hyphenation

Without control of these two factors you will certainly have rivers, ie, channels of whitespace running down the paragraphs since whitespace, or more accurately, word spacing, is what is used to justify the lines. Unfortunately, font size can be controlled by the user on the Kindle, so whenever you decide to change the font size, the word spacing changes, and if you don’t have a hyphenation library (which it appears Kindle doesn’t have on board yet) and you get a diluvian horrorshow:

Justification without hyphenation

Justification without hyphenation

So, what happened to the text on the way to the Kindle?

One way to look at these typographic failures is to see them as byproducts of digitization, or to use my favorite analogy, this is what happens when you force atoms into the digital blender. Unfortunately, this is fraught with messiness (as clearly evidenced above) and it’s not clear who is responsible for the cleaning up of the digitizing mess. According to the Newsweek article:

Though Bezos won’t get terribly specific, Amazon itself is also involved in scanning books, many of which it captured as part of its groundbreaking Search Inside the Book program. But most are done by the publishers themselves, at a cost of about $200 for each book converted to digital.

Really? I highly doubt that scanning is part of the process of getting a book on the Kindle. I am pretty sure that most books nowadays begin on the computer (typed by the author on a word processor), then they are laid out by a designer on a computer, so that there is no need for them to make the round trip to print and then back again through a scanner.

Here’s what I think happens: they take the InDesign (or Quark ) file used for the book, export it as XML, and add Kindle-specific markup (this is an image, this is a caption, this is a list, and so on) to turn it into the proprietary AZW format. The semantic structure of books isn’t that complicated. It’s getting them to render nicely at all page-widths, font-sizes, etc. that’s hard.

Final Grade

From a purely visual, typography standpoint, I’d give the Kindle a C+. Good effort, but poor attention to detail. Fortunately many of these details just need some care and adjustment and are not necessarily the result of technical failures, just laziness and poor design judgement.

Next, I’m going to check out the new Sony PRS-700, which has a touch screen and highlighting ability. Stay tuned!

Also, don’t forget to nominate your favorite online read of 2008 here.

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