Paper and ink are disappearing, while new electronic reading platforms and devices proliferate. Debate over how we will read in the future rages on, with publications everywhere casting about for new ways to sell a very old product: the written word. But so far we've failed to address a fundamental glitch in our transition away from paper.
Here's the problem: Paper went up-and-down. Computer screens go sideways.
Whatever cool new reading devices may be on the horizon, for the foreseeable future the vast majority of us will be stuck reading all sorts of things on our laptop and desktop computers. Most of this text is displayed as vertically oriented online articles and other digital documents, as though it were printed on old-fashioned rolls of parchment that read downward from top to bottom. Short of rotating your monitor and all your software windows 90 degrees, this requires frequent scrolling and fonts that are too small, making the reading experience downright annoying.
Eyeballs equal revenue in the digital economy, so shouldn't content providers do everything possible to make reading pleasurable?
Vertical orientation makes no sense in an increasingly paperless world that we view in the horizontal frame of our computer screens. "The document" needs to be reconceived as something that goes not up and down, like paper, but sideways.
What would this look like?
Computer whizzes have already tinkered with this problem, and it's not hard to create a solution. The simplest example is a free piece of software called Tofu, written for Macs a few years ago by a programmer in Britain named Amar Sagoo, and largely overlooked by mainstream users.
Tofu does one thing: It displays text documents and some PDFs in simple, clutter-free columns, like a physical newspaper or magazine.
The columns are arranged sideways in a way that's completely native to the width of the screen, and thus far more natural and easy to use than even the column view of our current word-processing programs. Copying entire articles from the Web and pasting them into Tofu can be a hassle, but once there, you never have to scroll. Instead, you progress to the next column simply by clicking further sideways. It's a radically better use of onscreen real estate, and perfectly intuitive.
It's also astonishingly pleasant and natural to read. After a long day on the computer, I have no qualms about curling up in bed with my laptop, an article of Tofu-displayed text as the sole inhabitant of the screen. It feels as if I've truly left behind the annoyances of the online world and can enjoy reading for what it ought to be: an engaging, deep, thoughtful escape.
What we need now is a revolution on-screen that would build Tofu-like functionality for displaying text from the entire Internet and all our software – including our word-processing programs.
On websites, we'd still see dynamic pages with lots of headlines, pictures, videos, links, and distractions, but when we clicked on a headline, a window might pop up and fill the entire horizontal screen with columns of text just like Tofu. Illustrations and ads and so on could be included, just as in physical newspapers and magazines, but all of it would be oriented sideways instead of up-and-down, and so much more pleasant to read.
Some media outlets have taken steps in this direction. The New York Times' Reader 2.0 application displays digital content from the paper's daily print edition in a horizontal, easy-to-read format, but it's available only by subscription.
In the postpaper world, a reconfiguration of text might even help publications earn a living for themselves and their writers.
Today's readers expect to find information free online, but they might still be willing to pay for information presented in a premium format that they can own, take with them, and use later – as with a downloaded song or TV show from iTunes.
Imagine if users could download a Tofu-like version of any article with one click that charges a tiny micropayment. The article could then be read on your screen later in a more pleasant way, and perhaps in a more convenient place – at the lunch table, on the train, or on the couch, when the last thing we want to be is online.
Any piece of writing from 1,000 words to 100,000 words or more would be a candidate for a satisfying on-screen reading experience. Just as with iTunes, the more valuable downloads could command higher prices. And a writer or institution that produced an instant bestseller would profit instantly.
Programmers and publishers of online text: Please deliver us a long-overdue future in which we read – and write – in columns that move progressively sideways. After all, that's exactly the effect we create when we read an old-fashioned book and turn the page.
Trevor Corson is the author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters" and "The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice."