Last Week on My Mac: Taking text further

In less than a generation, we have moved from shooting still images on film to high-definition movies on mobile phones. Yet over that same period, the electronic ‘replacements’ for books have only mimicked what was already being done in ink on paper. Compare what you get from a PDF, iBook or eBook, and text has hardly changed in comparison.

The reason for this is, of course, commercial. Capturing your child’s first steps and that evening out on holiday sells phones, which generates colossal revenues, which grows a company like Apple from a medium-sized computer manufacturer to a cash-rich behemoth. But no one seems to have such investment interest in making text and books better. Throw in a few embedded video clips and the text can look after itself. After all, it’s only text.

A simple example is something that is inconveniently almost impossible with a printed book: opening it at several pages at once. You might want a double-page spread where you’re reading, another view of the notes relevant to those pages, and perhaps the occasional glance at an appendix. With a physical book, you could insert separate bookmarks and keep flipping between them. In rare cases, I have even bought two copies of a book to make this easier.

With an electronic book, that should be simple: just open another window on the same book, configure and navigate it as you wish. Yet neither of the apps most commonly used for reading books on a Mac, Books itself and Preview for reading PDF, seem able to accommodate such a basic request. It is possible, but well-hidden, in Adobe Acrobat Reader DC, if you can suffer the rest of its weird interface. It’s also one of the most useful features in my own free app Podofyllin.

The Books app is an excellent example of how stultified our approach to text is. It’s been carefully engineered to behave just like a printed book, with a few enhancements such as flowing text to let you adjust page size. But you’re stuck with a similar limited display, and it can’t even copy small sections of content. So for books about programming you either have to download separate source code, or type the example code in again, exactly as you would with a printed copy.

I’m sure that reading novels in Books is a wonderful experience, and much more convenient than traipsing around with heavy and bulky paperbacks. But that’s about as far as we’ve got in the same period that photography has transformed many lives and businesses.

There are, of course, some glorious exceptions, apps which do go far beyond anything achievable in print, of which I’m most familiar with Storyspace and Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems. When you’ve grown bored of those cheap novels in Apple’s Bookstore, get yourself a copy of Those Trojan Girls by Eastgate’s Mark Bernstein, or one of their other hypertext works, and you’ll see what I mean.

But hypertext hasn’t caught on with the masses, perhaps much in the way that massively parallel processing, quantum computing or other equally important minority sports haven’t. It’s relatively difficult to author well, and more ‘serious’ reading, perhaps. This is in spite of the fact that websites, blogs, and much other online content are rather stunted forms of hypertext.

If you read my art articles here, you’ll know that I love narrative painting, and am currently in the midst of looking at paintings and illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in the Tuscan language, the ancestor of modern Italian. Although my Italian is limited, I learned Latin, and would have liked to read Dante with a modern English translation, the original Tuscan/Italian, and notes. Using printed books, that would require at least three open at the same time. At the very least, a computer should be able to show me the first two in the same window in interlinear text.

As far as I can tell, at present, there is no app for macOS which can take, for instance, Project Gutenberg text versions of the same book, and display them in parallel or interleaved form.

This is partly because of another phenomenon: the assumption of English dominance. Because the language has so many speakers and readers, why would anyone possibly want to refer to a non-English original?

I’m no linguist, but I do understand how central language is to culture, and how this dominance of English is steadily eating away at the breadth and diversity of our cultures. It’s marvellous that those proficient in English should have access to such a rich collection of world literature, but we must always remember that literature is at its richest in its mother tongue. That is something which computers can support, but don’t, because their design and marketing is also dominated by those who speak and write English. Supporting localisation is more than just adding keyboard layouts, dictionaries, and local currency and numeric conventions.

Look out for a beta-release of DelightEd 2 in the next few days which will offer a new feature to access and create interlinear texts.

These are just some ideas as to how we can take text beyond the printed page. What else do you think we should be doing to improve text on computers?