Sunday, July 03, 2011

Kindles, dashes and the Shard

click photo to enlarge
In recent months I've been giving some thought to buying an e-book reader, possibly a Kindle. I have no special affection for Amazon. In fact, the built-in proprietary format of their device along with the widely reported case of the remote removal of a book from people's Kindles that the company undertook a while ago makes me think another manufacturer might be preferable. However, their reader does support most (though not all) common formats, has a good quality display, and is relatively inexpensive. The latter would be a particular consideration if I didn't like the experience.

However, looking at a full page advertisement for the Kindle on the back page of the Guardian newspaper's Review section has put the thought right out of my head for the time being. Why? Well, the advert features a large photograph of the Kindle with the first page of a novel, "Ordinary Thunderstorms" by William Boyd, showing on the screen, and I read the first sentence of this three times before I understood its meaning! The reason was that where a dash should have been, indicating a break in the flow of the sentence for an interjection, there was what looked like a hyphen (i.e. there was no space before and after the character), and where the sentence continued after this aside, there was a further hyphen. So, on my first reading I was left wondering what a "river-all" and a "doubt-but" were.  The second sentence was perfectly clear, but then it got worse. The third sentence, that begins the second paragraph, starts, "There he is - look - stepping hesitantly down..." But on the Kindle I read, "There he is-look-stepping hesitantly down... And, once again I was re-reading to extract meaning. The irony is, this same Kindle page has two correctly hyphenated words. Why, I wondered, couldn't the correct typography that usually features spaces before and after a dash, that was presumably in the paper novel, be transferred to the e-book reader? Is this common to all these devices? Anyway, it was enough to put me off and I don't think that was the intention of Amazon's expensive advertisement.

It was only after I'd puzzled over this for a while and sent a query off to Amazon that I noticed the characters were (quite correctly) longer when they indicated dashes, and shorter when being used as hyphens.* However, they were not so different that I noticed this until I began forensically examining what was going on. So, even that distinction isn't enough to prevent the understanding of a passage being a potential chore and, frankly, difficulties of that sort are not what I want from my reading.

* Further clarification for the technically minded. Skip if you don't care!
  • The dash ( — ) used for a pause in thought or where parentheses might be used is sometimes called an em dash. It usually has a space before and after, and can only be produced on a computer keyboard by using the key combination Alt and 0151 (on the Num pad). Computer writers usually use the hyphen with a space before and after in place of a proper dash, but publishers invariably observe the distinction in character length and place spaces before and afterwards.
  • The hyphen (-) is used for hyphenated words e.g. full-length or re-entered, and is available directly from the keyboard. When used it has no space before and after except where listing hyphenated words e.g. pre- and post- war.
  • An intermediate length line (–) called an en dash, sometimes used when showing a range of numbers e.g. 180–360, can be produced using the key combination Alt and 0150. It also has no space before and after.
What I suspect is happening with this Kindle example is that the spaces before and after the dash are being lost during the translation from paper to e-book format.

Addendum - Curiouser and Curiouser
The day after I wrote the above my wife noticed a Tesco advertisement for the Amazon Kindle on the back of the Guardian newspaper's magazine. It showed the same first page of the same novel on its screen held by the very same hand. But guess what - on this Kindle the dashes were fine, with a space before and a space after! More detailed analysis of the screenshot showed this page had several differences from the earlier one. The page displayed two fewer lines even though each line was slightly longer, the title bar was different, "Chapter 1" had been replaced by "ONE", and there was more data on the bottom of the screen. The most important, and perhaps the crucial difference was that the symbol "3G" was displayed on the screen. On the basis of these advertisements am I to assume that the more expensive 3G+WiFi Kindle displays better than the basic WiFi model? And if that is the case why isn't it made clear? Or is it simply that the Kindles in the advertisements are displaying different versions of the William Boyd novel. This begs another question, of course - if I buy a typographically "crippled" version of a book can I get it exchanged for one that reads correctly? This is all very curious and none of it makes me inclined to purchase Amazon's e-book reader. Moreover it shows the company failing in the two key areas of advertising - information and persuasion.

And now back to our regular programming. Today's photograph is an update on the progress of the Shard taken on a recent visit to London. It was taken from downstream by the Thames at Rotherhithe. Image stabilisation, the selection of a high ISO, and bracing the camera against the balcony door was enough to secure a fairly sharp shot.  The image also includes parts of the tops of the towers of Tower Bridge and a segment of the London Eye. My last photographs of this new London building were taken on 9th June - see here and here.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 238mm
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/20
ISO: 3600
Exposure Compensation:  -0.67 EV
Image Stabilisation: On