When I first read George Orwell's novel, 1984--a book that has recently experienced a resurgence--it was as a slim paperback with what seemed like a terrible font. The type was small, spidery and cramped and it lent a claustrophobic feeling to my reading experience. It was as though the type was an extension of the ideas in the book. Although it was aesthetically displeasing, the type actually enhanced the book's presentation.
It's tempting to think the design was not intentional--because why would a publisher waste a designer's time on an individual type treatment for a budget title? Or, at least, that's what we think today, since so many book publishers are now part of huge media conglomerates. We expect attention to craft to be abandoned in favor of profits.
But I read 1984 before the consolidation of media and book publishing occurred. Having spent some time professionally with people who make books, it's easy to imagine a book designer giving thoughtful attention to font choice, even on a budget classic. Book people really care about type--I once worked with an editor who had a special pair of glasses made for the purpose of optimizing the type contrast on the manuscripts he read.
With digital or e-books, typography works differently. I knew e-books were here to stay when I heard the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend open a hardback and announce in frustration, "I can't change my font size!" The ability to change type size may be easier on the eyes, but it also undoes the aesthetic choices intended by the designer. If I had been able to bump up the type on my paperback 1984, I would have lost the sensory experience that teeny type offered me.
Although type size is flexible on e-readers, the font choices available in e-books are often restricted by the display capabilities of the device being used. A book designer may have a very limited range of type styles to choose from when designing an e-book. Readers can sometimess hack their devices to increase the number of fonts available, but that doesn't mean they'll be well matched to the reading material.
For a long time reading books on the web was a terrible experience. Some of this had to with hardware, such as screen technology and refresh rates. Other problems were due to the limitations imposed by designing for the web. Lately I've been interested in responsive typography, a way of fashioning reading experiences that adapts to the viewport of the device in use.
Best practices coming out of usability and human-computer interaction research are also helping designers craft reading experiences that are more suited to the web. Although these experiences represent a step forward for web reading, they are largely shaped by ergonomic concerns and do not reflect the unique content being represented. What would really be interesting would be to see a responsive representation of 1984 on the web that also enhanced the experience of the book.