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My E-Reading Quirks

I love paper books, but I’m not a fetishist. I’ve gone almost entirely digital for my technical books since they tend to be relatively massive and become outdated quickly.

E-Readers are such different experiences from paper books, but we seem to have already settled on interface paradigms that carry over so much paper baggage. For a while now I’ve noticed that I have adopted a few counter-intuitive e-reading practices that others haven’t.

“Both Margins Advance”

The typical e-reader paradigm is to swipe right-to-left or left-to-right to turn the page forward or back, respectively, and to tap the right or left margins to advance or page back. “Duh, obvious,” right? But is this really needed?

By my (highly scientific, trust me!) estimate, more than 95% of reading is moving forward—why should half of the interface be devoted to moving back? If you are right-handed, have you tried holding the iPad in your left hand and advancing pages while enjoying a fresh cup of coffee? Swiping is possible, but it’s awkward.

iBooks has a “Both Margins Advance” option in its bundle. I don’t know if this was a sop to lefties, but for me it has become a defining feature for any good e-reader. By enabling this option, tapping either the left or right margin advances the page. You still have left-to-right swipe capability for the exceptional instances when you need to go back. Tapping either margin allows for comfortable ambidextrous one-hand reading while enjoying a tasty beverage or (as in my original use case when I discovered this) holding a sleeping infant.

On the iPhone, Read Less Not More

If you read on your iPhone but it’s not your primary reading device, go make your e-reader font bigger. No, bigger than that.

No…still bigger. Really.

On my iPhone 5, my font is set so I typically only see 13 lines of body text per screen. That’s not much; you’ve probably actively been going the other direction trying to squeeze in a “page” per screen. While I initially made this adjustment due to getting older and denying that I needed reading glasses, it’s turned out to be more generally useful.

When I’m comfortably settled in for reading, I use my iPad. I really only read on my iPhone when I’m on the go, which turns out to be highly interruptible: I’m frequently glancing up to see if the bus is coming, or if it’s my turn to speak to a clerk. Larger fonts don’t necessarily help so much with the reading of text on iPhone as much as they help you return to reading after an interruption. You have much less positioning on screen to remember and can return to where you were much quicker. If this describes your reading conditions, give this tip a try—trust me, you’ll quickly get used to the more frequent paging required.

Wish List Items

I wish iBooks gave me better control of styles. Most notably, I’d like to be able to reduce the size of chapter and section headings so they don’t overwhelm the iPhone screen at my larger font size.

I’d like the ability for the screen to be less reactive while I’m reading. I’ve only dabbled in speed reading practices, but one of the first techniques they all promote is to guide your eye along the text with your finger. This is pretty impractical when it can so easily be recognized as a page-turning swipe. I’m not really interested in getting into a pros and cons of speed reading discussion, but it is an example case where one would want to be more hands-on with the text than most e-readers allow.

I’m really glad e-reading has advanced from when I first started reading on a tiny Handspring Visor. I admire those experimenting with exploring it as its own expressive medium, but I also want developers to continue to question and improve how we read standard texts.