enter the vook

This, from a Salon article about ‘video books’, sounds about right:

And so the familiar games begin. Someone is called upon to say that the sky is falling and to scold book publishers for being behind the times: “You can’t just be linear anymore with your text,” said Judith Carr, Atria’s publisher. Then someone stuffier is summoned to detect the imminent fall of Western Civilization presaged by people’s unwillingness to read great literature anymore. Professor Maryanne Wolf lamented, “Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?” and novelist Walter Mosley asserted that “doing stuff on computers” actually degrades one’s “cognitive abilities.” The comments thread fills up with semi-hysterical fogies moaning, “Don’t take my good old-fashioned books away! I love the way they smell!” And, finally, the geek punditocracy steps in to sniffily announce that although printed books are indeed doomed, this particular alternative is hopelessly lame, created by clueless print-oriented geezers who can’t see that the real future lies in some yet-to-be-imagined, fantastically entertaining fusion of emerging media that our poor, reeling, post-adolescent brains can’t hope to conceptualize.

Having been reading a few ebooks recently, I’ve been struck by how difficult the successful integration of different mediums actually is. Oh, it seems easy enough. The technology allows sound and movies and all kinds of other things, so surely every book can easily be improved with some high tech augmentation? Actually, not so much. Because the experience of reading is so different from the experience of, say, watching a video, the insertion of a video clip inside text almost always feels like, at best, a clumsy add-on, and, at worst, an annoying imposition. Perhaps there are people who like reading books and then looking up every five minutes to watch TV but I’m not one of them. Music is slightly different but video kills the experience of immersion that a novel offers.

Which is not to say that the promised amazing fusion will not occur. But it will require a significant aesthetic leap: the development of a form as different from the conventional novel as Pamela was from a conduct book. In the short term, however, ebooks will become hegemonic not because of any new readerly functionality but simply because they develop key aspects of the paperback revolution, most importantly convenience and price. The first point requires, it seems to me, the extension of electronic ink to smart phones so that they read more like paper; the second, perhaps more problematically, depends on a resolution of the outstanding questions about copyright.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Yeah, I think plain text will always survive, even if books themselves don’t – if for no other reason, simply because text is just much more efficient at delivering abstract info than video and audio could ever be.

    It really bugs me that the Sydney Morning Herald (and I assume the Age?) now puts videos inside plain text articles and starts them automatically without any prompting. If I wanted to get my news audio-visually I’d watch it on TV!

  2. Wolf as a leading neuroscientist in the area of dyslexia has some very major concerns about the impact of digitised reading – there is already research showing that neuroplasticity & cognition are impacted differently between paper based reading and digital platforms.

    Agree that much ebook file format presentation is underwhelming but that also raises the problem about what happens to a printed book when its print ready PDF is mashed into an e-reader file format. Page layout, design, editorial decisions re production come to mean SFA – it aint the bells and whistles that are missing; its high standard design – something the geeky world aint well known for appreciating or understanding.

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