Here's to the small print: The past and future of compact literature

From cigarette packet-sized classics to Don Quixote on the iPhone, Jonathan Gibbs charts the past and future of compact literature

One of the strange by-products of the digital revolution that we are going through at the moment is that no one seems to know how big anything should be.

Newspapers went through a convulsive readjustment of dimensions a few years back – led, of course, by this one. Computers and televisions seem to want to be as big as possible in terms of screen size, and simultaneously almost non-existent in terms of depth and weight. One of the biggest question marks hanging over Apple's forthcoming iPad – which the publishing industry is hoping will trigger its own "iPod moment" – seems to be that of the weird inbetween-ness of its dimensions, halfway between phone and laptop.

There is one yardstick, though, by which we can judge certain gadgets and artefacts – their suitability for the human hand. The triumph of the iPod, and the iPhone that followed it, seems as much to do with the way it sits in your palm, as with its functionality. This is especially obvious when you consider that, before the iPhone's arrival, the trend for mobile phones had been for them to get smaller and smaller, until it seemed as if they were about to disappear altogether.

In all its lovable holdability, the iPod reaches back to those two other masterpieces of hand-sized design: the cigarette packet and the pack of cards. All three sit in the hand with absolute precision and confidence: not gripped, like a gun or a tennis racket, but held. The pack of cards is still with us (despite online poker and that evil, time-wasting version of solitaire that comes free with every computer operating system), but the fag packet, you would have to guess, is on the way out.

Tank magazine saw the poignancy of this condemned object at the time of the smoking ban and decided to commemorate it with a series of six books designed to fit inside the traditional flip-top cigarette packet, featuring stories from the likes of Kafka, Conrad and Hemingway. Little did anyone know that they would soon look almost like a requiem for the book itself.

The details of the Tank books are spot on, down to the foil wrapping inside and cellophane outside, and their looks, based on classic cigarette brands from around the world – Lucky Strike from the US, Nil from Germany, Sobranie from Russia. As Tank editor-in-chief, Masoud Golsorkhi, points out, cigarette packaging is "an example of gross over-engineering – it lasts much longer than you need it to."

Golsorkhi says that the books were designed partly as a sort of practical joke – "something to put on the table at the end of the meal, and watch the waiter hover nervously."

In fact, for all their visual and tactile beauty, the reading experience they offer doesn't compare especially well with a well-presented piece of text on an iPhone or digital reader. They're fiddly little things, especially if you're holding them in two hands, and only carry about 100 words to the page – about half of what I can get, perfectly legibly, on my iPhone.

In this, though, they are carrying on a long tradition of books that sacrifice readability for size. The first miniature books were religious texts, for those who wanted to keep something uplifting with them at all times. They often came in a locket, so they could be worn on a chain, next to the skin.

The idea of a book to take with you everywhere (in Latin, a vade mecum, meaning "go with me") transferred easily from religion to other subject matters, as evidenced by Quotations from Chairman Mao, the only book that can rival the Bible for the title of Most Published Ever. Keeping a copy of that about your person might not save your soul, but, during the Cultural Revolution, it would certainly have saved you a beating, at the very least. Not that it was particularly small: at 8"x6" it was slightly bigger than the average paperback today. Even in its American form – which is when it earned its nickname of "The Little Red Book" – it was about 5¾" tall, well outside the maximum size for a true miniature book, which must be no more than 3" in any dimension.

These days, miniature books are either a curiosity for collectors, or a publishing gimmick – something to pick up at the shop till as an afterthought. The perfect example of this is Paul Wilson's The Little Book of Calm, first published in 1997, which, for all that it bred a thousand execrable parodies, did at least continue the tradition of the spiritual text as vade mecum.

In terms of the non-spiritual, Penguin had a big hit with their Penguin 60s – a neat selection of stories and extracts, each edition coming in at a pocket-sized 4¼"x5". The series was later expanded, very profitably, into Great Ideas, Great Loves and Great Just About Everything Else (That's Out of Copyright).

These books are great for shoving in a pocket or handbag, but they're short, and soon finished. It's the great advantage of a digital reader that it can carry so much data, and so conveniently. I keep a small selection of literature apps on my iPhone, just so I know I've always got something to read, whether it's crammed into a tube, waiting in a queue, or sat in the glow of a campfire, when everyone else had gone to bed.

The iTunes store currently has nearly 19,000 books apps listed, most of which are uninspired renderings of out-of-copyright classics, collections of quotes, or bargain basement comics and manga. There is some good stuff mixed in with it, though.

Electric Literature is an American bi-monthly magazine that comes in every conceivable format – paperback, eBook and for the Kindle, Sony Reader and iPhone. The interface is good and, crucially, so is the writing, with contributions so far from such writers as Michael Cunningham (author of The Hours) and Lydia Davis. They recently commissioned a rather sweet Twitter story from Rick Moody, "Some Contemporary Characters", which was tweeted at ten-minute intervals over three days, and can be read again in their forthcoming third issue.

Hip journal McSweeney's, too, has its own app, though much of its content can be found for free on its website. Or try Opium Magazine, which helpfully gives you an estimated reading time for its "quick fixes" (you have to turn on the iPhone's "shake-to-shuffle" feature to move between them), or Scarab, an online-only journal of mostly poetry which neatly presents its pieces both on-screen and as audiofiles. American sites, all of them – if there are British 'zines out there doing the same, I've missed them.

The iPhone is fine for short stories. The swipe of a thumb to turn the page is very cool, and looks even better on the iPad, and there's something pleasantly disorientating about reading something without page numbers, and no sense of when it's going to end. As long as it's short. I won't be reading the version of Don Quixote I downloaded for free with a batch of other "classic novels". Not on my iPhone - and not on the iPad. Apple's new toy is simply too big and too heavy (the size and weight of your average hardback novel, though thinner) and its screen is apparently harder on the eye than the Kindle and Sony's "e-ink".

In the end, it is convenience that will decide the future of the book. The publishing industry is fuelled by people who care more about having something to read, when they want and at the price they want, than about books as objects. The small, lightweight book, whether hardback or paperback, has ruled the roost for hundreds of years, above all because it was the right size. When the boffins come up with something that fits the hand as well as a Penguin or a pack of cards, that's when their "iPod moment" will come.