Mimicry is an accusation that’s freely bandied by print aficionados who feel that digital reading suffers from too many book-like interfaces. It’s an easy attack, and one without much tooth. For what is anything on the screen but mimicry? And for that matter, how is a printed page not a form of mimicry as well? By the same logic, one would have to argue, for example, that photographs are inherently superior to illustrations.

It would be a big mistake to think that all the lessons we’ve learned in the evolution of the printed book will apply to digital transformations. But it would also be a mistake to throw them out. Let’s run through some of the big ideas in book technology over the last several hundred years:

  • Binding. Wonderful concept, and pretty hard to beat when it’s done properly. But our classics, cultural landmarks and histories are worth preserving for much longer than the life of paper and glue allow. So binding needs to be virtualized into a standard container format. Unless, of course, publishers are busily co-opting new indestructible materials with which to bind their books . . .
  • Scrolling. Scrolls were a nice way to contain text: portable, extremely lightweight, self-protecting. However, pages have proved themselves. The kind of scrolling we’ve gotten used to in computer interfaces was a compromise from the very beginning. It’s not the best way to read.
  • Typography. If there is any aspect of printed books which truly needs to be imported wholesale into our aesthetic and functional notions of digital books, it’s the art of typography. Why shouldn’t a digital book do it’s best to  imitate the best of print design? Kerning, leading, ligatures, orphan control, and other complex details of presentation need to be smoothly integrated with the searchable, reflowable texts that screen interfaces offer.
  • Footnotes. These have been black sheep ever since they were birthed by academic fervor. Putting them inline in text destroys flow, marginizing them fouls necessary breathing room, putting them at the end of a section is incredibly inconvenient, and efforts to place them in footers fall apart when text is reflowable. If anything can be thrown out, it’s preconceived notions about footnotes. There are myriad ways to handle them in digital texts, and almost all of them are better than print.
  • Covers. Who hates covers? No one. But no one’s figured out how they fit into digital texts. The physical requirements no longer exist, the pragmatic needs are addressed by metadata, and the marketing aspect just doesn’t quite translate (full bleed four-color process reduced to a jpeg thumbnail?)
  • Spines. Really, historically speaking, just the inferior alternative to covers, designed specifically for physical constraints which don’t exist on the computer. Sorry, Shelfari, spines are one of the first casualties of digital transformations, and rightly so. No need for any more bookshelf metaphors.
  • Table of contents. Doesn’t need to appear as a page in the book anymore. Bad imitation would reproduce it there, as many Gutenberg titles do. The table of contents is a form of navigation, and thus is metadata. This is not to say it can’t be nicely presented, just that it’s less essential to what a book is than we previously thought.
  • Indexes and glossaries. What a wonderful invention, eh? Wouldn’t it be nice to jump to a spot in the book where a topic appears? Or flip to a section that defines key terms? Unfortunately, these are two concepts that are ready to seriously evolve, and no one should consider borrowing them as is. Hyperlinks, search, crowdsourcing, shared notes, author commentary, call the future of this what you will, it is, again, about metadata. Going forward, the accusation of outright mimicry will be reversed: this time leveled at print for trying to imitate what computers already do so well.
  • Double-sided pages. Nice to trees, very economical, and reduces page turns. Dependent on physical rotation of the book object, or a good solid wood table at the proper height. Not necessary on a screen.
  • Facing pages. Pages don’t read each other, unfortunately. A page ideally should always face the reader. Also, we only read one at a time. That said, while it will one day seem archaic to be holding a portion of unread pages in one hand and a portion of read pages in the other, the tactile feedback of the fatness of either portion must be respected in some digital equivalent. At BookGlutton, we have a fat little progress bar underneath the text. It’s fun in a tactile way to scrub along it, like feeling the edges of the pages you’ve been to, or the pages you’ve yet to discover. The filled portion increases as you fill yourself up with the book. Tasty.
  • Margins. Though they’ve seen some shrinkage, it’s not because they’re less necessary. Space around text makes it easier to read. Many screens seem to ignore this, and they shouldn’t. Here at BG, we’d like to see margins get bigger than they are in most printed books.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And believe it or not, most people who contemplate reading on the screen want the screen to be somewhat like a book.

That said, let’s definitely have less page-flip effects and jpeg-wood bookshelves.