Reading Books on the iPad

On June 11, 2010, in Recommendations, by Rob Levandowski

Before I got my iPad, I didn’t think I’d use it much for reading books.  I love books.  The house is full of books. I’m proud that I am perennially short of bookshelves.

Now, I find myself leaning toward buying books via the iPad more than going to the bookstore.

The thing is, I usually have my iPad with me.  It’s easy to carry. That means I can read nearly anywhere, and as a result I can read more often. I’m already a devout reader, so this just feeds the addiction.

Of the available readers, Apple’s iBooks is my favorite.  By no means is it perfect, but it’s good enough.  With the right font, and the right type size, I don’t find the iPad’s LCD objectionable.  It certainly gets dim enough to read comfortably in bed. (It lights up the room considerably less than the LED miner’s lamp I use for reading physical books in bed.)

Where iBooks falls down is in the texts themselves.


Some publishers are doing right by the electronic reader, and are releasing books that match the formatting and copy-editing of the paper version.  Others are taking various shortcuts.  Browsing the iBookstore, you’ll find many bestsellers getting poor reviews because of editing and typographical errors.  I suspect some publishers are sending off their uncorrected galley proofs for digital conversion in the name of speed, hoping that the electronic buyer won’t notice or won’t care. I suspect those publishers are wrong. I certainly avoid those electronic texts, and as a result those publishers have to wait until I’m done reading eBooks and get to the store… or sometimes, they don’t get my money at all.

Note to publishers: An impulse purchase is a potential sale only so long as the impulse exists.

[amazon-product]0446554960[/amazon-product]Even otherwise well-done books have odd flaws.  For example, Preston and Child’s Fever Dream on iBooks looks very close to the print layout, except that the word “fixing” is set as “fi xing” throughout.

Some of the texts from established e-book vendors are highly uneven. Baen Books has embraced free e-book versions of their authors’ back catalogues for some time. They even bind CD-ROMs of their e-book library to new hardcovers for some titles.  Some of these versions are well formatted. Some are okay, but are missing niceties like “curly quotes”—something forgivable on a blog site, but uncomfortable in a book.  A few have obviously taken a detour through plain-text-file-ville at some point in their life, making them awkward to utterly unreadable.  (Imagine reading a book where all the extra line breaks signifying a change in scene or point-of-view have been elided.)

Okay, but those are free e-books, so you have to make allowances, right? Unfortunately, I’ve found the same flaws in Baen’s paid DRM-free ePub e-books as well. If I’m paying for the book, I expect a well-edited text that is properly “typeset.”

If e-Books are going to take off, publishers have to make them as close to the print version as possible, especially in terms of layout and editing.


I’ve tried the big three iPad e-book readers: Apple’s iBooks, the Barnes & Noble eReader, and Amazon’s Kindle app.

All have flaws.

iBooks limits you to a small handful of fonts. Only one of them resembles anything you’re likely to find in a well-designed mass-market book: Baskerville. I suppose Palatino and Times New Roman aren’t horrible, but they aren’t typical book faces. Cochin is too ornate to be comfortable as a text font, and Verdana… well… it’s Verdana. It’s an ugly Microsoft sans-serif typeface designed for reading on Windows 95-era CRTs.  I suppose it has its fans, but then, the same could be said for velvet paintings of dogs playing poker.

On the plus side, iBooks does a very good job rendering those fonts. Apple’s Type Services are used to full effect; you get ligatures (fi and fl instead of fi and fl, for example) automatically. The letters are well-kerned, and the line-spacing generally matches what you’d expect in a real book.  The result is comfortable to read, especially in Baskerville.

The B&N eReader gives you more font choices: Amasis, Century Schoolbook, Georgia, Joanna, Times New Roman, Ascender Sans, Gill Sans, and Trebuchet MS. With the exception of Trebuchet, all are reasonable fonts. The serif fonts wouldn’t be out of place in a real book. However, the font rendering is fatally flawed. The lack of ligatures is bad enough.  However, except for Century Schoolbook, none of the fonts provided will display italics. Any italicized text gets rendered as plain text.  This can render a book utterly incomprehensible.

Even Century Schoolbook is flawed. While you can make out italic text in Century Schoolbook, it isn’t set in a true italic face. Instead, the font is mathematically slanted (“oblique”) to make a pseudo-italic appearance. The result is ugly, and very reminiscent of early Mac typography circa 1984. The poor typography of B&N eReader is indefensible in a book-reading application.

I also find the line spacing and page width options uncomfortable.

I quickly ruled out the B&N app.

The Kindle app gives you one typeface, reminiscent of paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not bad for reading, but it is what it is. It also comes with relatively unimaginative page design as a result. However, it does scale to small sizes very well, and is very legible on the iPad’s screen.

Like the B&N app, the Kindle app fails to take advantage of iOS’s built-in support for advanced typography, such as ligatures.

The B&N and Kindle apps both lack an in-app bookstore, forcing you to jump out to Safari and use the vendor’s web site to purchase new books.  On the other hand, both the B&N and Amazon web sites are far easier to browse than Apple’s iBookstore.  Trying to “browse the shelves” in iBookstore can be infuriating, as you see only a fraction of the content unless you perform a search.

All three apps have a common failing: None of them implement proper hyphenation. This leads to some ugly typography, especially for certain texts at certain font sizes. I don’t find it as objectionable as some, but many book snobs find it painful. The B&N app offers an option to display ragged-right text, which reduces the need for hyphenation; the other two only offer full justification.

* * *

So far, all three readers are flawed, but I find iBooks’ flaws the least objectionable. It looks good, it works well, and it feels polished. B&N’s app is decidedly half-baked, and not up to professional standards—never mind professional book publishing standards. The Kindle app shows more experience with e-Books, but is definitely “Kindle lite” and short of the mark.

I look forward to future versions of all three, hopefully combined with a more serious commitment to quality from the publishers.

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