parchmentbook Over at Gadget Lab, Tim Carmody has an interesting look at why e-book readers are the size they are. It has to do with sheep. More specifically, the sheepskins that were used to make parchment back in medieval days.

Folding the parchment a different number of times before cutting produced a different number of parchment sheets of different sizes, which rapidly became the standard sizes of the printing industry. Even after printing moved from parchment to paper, the sizes were preserved out of habit—they were already set up for working with those sizes and there was no compelling reason to change.

small-book-001 And the same thing happened when electronic gadgets started to impersonate books. In order to play up the resemblance to books in order to sell the gadgets to book-lovers, it made sense that they would keep the devices the same size as the books we know and love. There was even a size roughly equivalent to the iPhone’s screen (though it doesn’t seem to have gained the same level of popularity as larger sizes—perhaps even then, people complained about it being “too small to read”).

So, as Tim points out, when people talk about a “paperback Kindle” or compare e-reader sizes to particular types of books, they’re continuing a long tradition that goes all the way back to the age of parchment. And yet they don’t seem to feel even the slightest bit sheepish!


  1. …er, the determinate was an ergonomic of the paper mold.

    In the papyrus book era the pages were cut squares from a stock of a blank scroll of papyrus. This was folded in half producing the typical half square page of the papyrus era. The touch screen of the cell phone is the half square. This is the book shape of late Antiquity and the iPhone.

    As parchment came into use the base shape was the quarter of an animal. This folded once along its short axis yields a squat proportion of about 4:5 for the page. Medieval parchment books are more square and unlike screen proportions of hand-held readers.

    Our paper books are based on production efficiency ergonomics of the paper mold. Hand formed sheets were used to establish page size until the advent of web presses and by that time conventions were established. The proportion of a paper book is more 4:7. This is the proportion of dedicated book readers and even the iPad.

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