Jan Martinek: words && bytes
interested in understanding

Talkin’ bout pagination and digital books

June 21, 2017

When you think of a book as of an object, you may find that pagination is its nature. It defines how one interacts with a book. It becomes the central affordance of a book.

[Book] came to replace the scroll thanks to several problems that limited the scroll’s function and readability. For one, scrolls were very long, sometimes as long as ten meters. This made them hard to hold open and read, a difficulty not helped by the fact that most scrolls in that era were read horizontally, instead of vertically as scrolling virtual documents are read now.

The text on a scroll was continuous, without page breaks, which made indexing and bookmarking impossible. Conversely, the codex was easier to hold open, separate pages made it possible to index sections and mark a page, and the protective covers kept the fragile pages intact better than scrolls generally stayed.

— Cited from History of scrolls on Wikipedia, adopted from Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons.

Pagination in digital is a skeuomorphism. It’s a useful metaphor, but it’s just a metaphor: it allows us to move from the past to the present. Let’s explore why it’s useful so that we may advance past it.

What follows is a collection of notes — I welcome and appreciate any comment, correction, link to a relevant resource etc. Find me on twitter, I’m superinterested in anything sparked by reading following paragraphs.

Pages are the natural way to address a place in a book. They divide the text into logically ordered parts. Say a number and we’re on the same page.


Pages divide the text into similarly long parts. It’s easy to say “I’ll read 5 more pages to finish the chapter and we can go out”.

Indexes and asides

Thanks to pagination, specific means of expression developed in books: ending content mid-page and inserting blank pages to signal a break or end of chapter; side–, foot– and endnotes; tables of contents and indexes.


It’s easy to flip or skim through pages with a printed book.


Turning pages feels good. Physical contact with the material is comfortable and I can feel that progress is being made.

Paged UI

Paginated digital media sometimes simplify navigation to previous/next page links — this clears up the user interface and eliminates various possible mistakes.

Safe returns

When reading a text full of references, the experience goes beyond the book — it starts to require a library (private or public one). Curious reading requires not only brave expeditions, but also safe returns, so that you finish what you set out to do. (I want to stress that the network is more important than the device itself when it comes to digital reading and publishing.)

What about you?

Okay, let’s stop here with this list — there’s a lot to discuss, prototype, develop and enjoy, isn’t it?

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