The trouble with e-books

This morning I watched a rather slick video from IDEO, a design consultancy, about the “future of the book” which illustrates beautifully the problem with (many) e-book technologies:

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

My issue isn’t with e-books in general. The Kindle in its current incarnation, for example, is a fantastic device. Rather, what troubles me is when starry-eyed gadgeteers start adding bells and whistles to the reading experience which, in many cases, undermine our ability to connect with literature.

In the video above, we hear about “a reading experience that comprises multiple perspectives to let you see the bigger picture,” and enhancing books with “a series of informational layers that provide additional context to any material being read.” All of this sounds good in theory, and may be useful for certain types of research. But in many other cases, particularly that of reading fiction, this strikes me as both offensive and destructive.

When I read a novel, my engagement with the book is singular and immersive. Unlike the the internet, which is an encounter with an associative multiplicity of voices, books offer us the opportunity to connect profoundly with a particular voice: to spend a few hours inhabiting the thoughts and perspectives of another person. That encounter has a momentum and life of its own. Put down a book halfway-though and return to it weeks later, and the spell has been broken: it can only be recaptured with effort, if at all.

The software shown in this video seems like an attempt to make reading a book more like surfing the web. It allows the clamor of distraction to intrude on the connection between author and reader. Imagine reading, say, the Chronicles of Narnia with video footnotes and background digressions interspersed throughout the pages. Yes, the experience might be more informative but it would be far less magical or transporting. The idea that Moby Dick should be “jazzed up” by adding choose-your-own-adventure style hyperlinks is not just intellectually insulting: it feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of how and why books have value.

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