The Haptics of Reading

Book designer Carl W. Scarbrough on the haptics of reading:(haptics means “having to do with the sense of touch”).

One of my stock answers to this sort of question is that at Godine we remain dedicated to the printed page, but that’s an oversimplification. The long answer is that (and here I speak as a reader as much as a designer of books) there are certain haptic experiences that an electronic device simply can not afford the reader. There is a dramatic difference between the sensations inherent in reading a novella—necessarily a small, intimate book—and studying an overscaled art book, where the size of the illustrations plays an important role in the satisfaction we find in reading. No discussion of e-books has yet taken on the issue of limited size and fixed format in a way I find satisfactory. Another aspect of this haptic issue is the question of suitability of materials. I have beautiful twentieth-century books printed letterpress on exquisite eighteenth-century papers. Reading them is a special pleasure, but it is very different from reading an art monograph where a satiny, coated white sheet makes the illustrations leap off the page.

All of this brings me to an important point, one that is consistently and conveniently ignored by the advocates of e-books. We read for many different reasons and in many different modes. Reading for information is fairly forgiving and flexible, provided the information is rendered accurately and neatly. E-books are marvelously well suited to these more technical forms of reading in which content is primary and form comes in a distant second. I can’t really criticize that, but it only addresses part of the spectrum of reading activities. I am far more interested in reading as an aesthetic experience, one in which the form can significantly enhance, even transform the reader’s response to and understanding of the text. Sure, I can read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in the Norton Anthology or pick it up on line, but I’d prefer to read the edition Bruce Rogers designed for Oxford University Press in 1930. Even if someone somehow recreated it as an e-book, a digital interpretation could never approach the sheer sensual pleasure of the subtly tended, gently irregular typography, the charming ornaments, the extraordinary pale-gray paper. That’s the sort of experience I like to provide for a reader.