Scrolling or paging?

The new version of iBooks allows you to read books in a continuous scroll instead of page by page. This has, surprisingly, set off an argument on which is the better way to read an ebook.

As best I can tell, the debate started with Dmitri Fadeyev’s post in favor of scrolling. This was followed by Rian van der Merwe’s argument that paging is better, a position echoed by Michael Tsai and Lukas Mathis.

I don’t get it. Paging is clearly an artifact of the technology of paper books, a technology I love deeply, but one that doesn’t make a lot of sense in an ebook reader. The arguments in favor of paging seem to boil down to these:

  1. Paging has an easier user interface. Tap here to go forward, tap there to go backward. None of this flicking or dragging fussiness that you get with scrolling. Scrolling is just too much work.
  2. Paging gives you a sense of accomplishment. Every time you tap to move forward, there’s a sort of metaphorical dusting off of the hands: I’ve finished that page and I’m moving on. Scrolling is just continuous drudgery.

These are poor arguments. First, scrolling interfaces are not precluded from having the ability to jump a half or a full screenful at a time. This sort of jumping is, in fact, nearly universal in web browsers and text editors. If iBooks doesn’t have it, that isn’t the fault of scrolling per se, it’s the fault of iBooks.

Also, is it really that much effort to scroll? Michael Tsai calls it exhausting, which I find flatly unbelievable. I read shitloads of stuff on scrolling web pages—as I’m sure Michael does—and I don’t get exhausted doing it.

As for the sense of accomplishment, I am, if anything, even more dubious. Flipping a page, whether in a physical book or an ebook, has never charged me with a feeling of achievement. In fact, in paged ebooks I seldom have any sense of how far along I am—in physical books there is, at least, the thickness of what’s in your left hand compared to what’s in your right.

I will say, though, that Dimitri’s initial post didn’t make the best case for scrolling. He made an improvement in his second post on the topic, where he discusses reading a set of instructions:

[T]he scroll interface did not insert artificial breaks in the content. When you’re looking at code or a list of instructions, you really don’t want them broken up by an artificial page, forcing you to go back and forth to verify that everything you’ve typed is correct.

While this is a good example, it’s still too restrictive. It’s not just technical manuals that benefit. Any book above the level of pure fluff can be be better read in a scrolling interface, because a scrolling interface gives you the opportunity to keep difficult passages together on the screen. In a paged interface, you’re at the mercy of the pagination algorithm and often need to flip back and forth. Authors don’t write in pages, they write in sentences and paragraphs, neither of which are honored in a paged interface.

And as the screen size gets smaller—let’s say you’re reading on an iPhone instead of an iPad—you’re more likely to find passages split up that ought to be together. The fewer words there are on the screen, the better it is to be able to scroll.

Honestly, I don’t see this as a close call.