Thursday, May 3, 2012

IS A BOOK STILL A BOOK IF IT IS NO LONGER A BOOK?


Thoughts on ‘Interactive’ E-Books, Apps, ‘Booktracks’, ‘Chopsticks’, ‘Enhancements’ and What Not…


Actually, this is exactly what a reader asked in response to an article ‘Are Apps The Future of Book Publishing?’ published in Forbes.com written by its staffer Alex Knapp. Talking about a series of his ‘favourite Apps’ like ‘Chopsticks’, ‘Booktracks’ etc., Alex goes on to describe ‘Booktrack’ and perhaps in his vivid and excited description of it, he opens up clues for questioning and doubts about these Apps, which perhaps he never intended to do. It may be useful to quote this particular para in full to understand the context. It goes thus:

For those people who still just want to cozy up with words on a page, I think one of my personal favorite e-book enhancements is Booktrack. Booktrack is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It provides a soundtrack for the books you’re reading. But it doesn’t only provide music – it also provides sound effects as you’re reading. You can try it yourself by checking out their free adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” It’s pretty cool – nice period mood music. As Holmes sits by the fire, you hear the fire. When he and Watson are in a cab, you hear the clip-clop of the hooves.  Even particularly cool is that it’s well-timed. There was a point where the story describes a woman screaming, and I heard the scream as I was reading the words. It made for a really immersive experience.


Well, when a reader Mark Simchock gives the following comments, doubting Thomasas like me and all those who have ever believed in Jonathan Swift’s insistence on man being a ‘rational’ animal, need to give him credit for expressing something that was always on our minds but never really expressed in as clear terms as that perhaps out of the ‘fear’ from being dubbed out-moded, rustic, and perhaps even anti-technology, and thus anti-development! (Remember Alexander Pope’s famous “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd”) Mark comments thus:

Interesting ideas. But like everything there’s a time and place. The primary question seems to be, is a book still a book if it is no longer a book? And while the idea of “enhancements” is nice, is there anything as vivid as the human imagination? Do we need sound effects to have the crap scared out of us by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart”? Is Hollywood coming to the book business? Please say it isn’t so. (bold ‘enhancements’ added)

And while the idea of “enhancements” is nice, is there anything as vivid as the human imagination? Do we need sound effects to have the crap scared out of us by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart”?

Later, Mark states it all the more clearly and loudly:

The brain is like any other muscle. Use it, or lose it. This not only applies to those who consume content, but to those who create it as well. There is also any issue here with language. Enhanced? That seems to be presuming quite a bit, yes? Aside from that fact that the “enhancements” could be crap, the word seems to imply that the traditional experience isn’t good enough. Really? My imagination isn’t good enough?


I’m no Luddite. I’ve been fascinated by technology since writing my first computer program in the last 70s. So it’s within that context that I ask: must everything digital manifest a world that is hyper-hyper? If everything is bionic then is bionic still bionic?

Another reader Abigail R. Esman states:
Mark, thanks so much for this. I’m just now drafting a post about the question of whether “enhancements” will affect the quality of our imaginations. While the original “Great Expectations” brings a quality beyond the actual Dickens novel — and is in my mind equally brilliant — I’d hate to only have one and not the other. And given what other films have done to great books, I fear for what such “enhancements” might bring.

To add to the idea of ‘enhanced imagination’, there is another issue of the content for e-reading being more ‘interactive’, as they claim to be. If interaction is limited to the form of it, then certainly one can not doubt that an e-book with enhanced features is certainly going to be ‘more interactive’, but how will it be differentiated from a video or an on-line game. Further, words are supposed to interact through their content, through the ideas that they carry and not really because of the soundtracks which support them. One needs to ask and ponder if we want the electronic devices to interact and imagine on our own behalf or for that matter would we encourage our children to have devices which are ‘pre-loaded’—in fact, to put it, which are sort of ‘pre-imagined’ and ‘pre-interactive’ for them?


Would we encourage our children to have devices which are ‘pre-loaded’—in fact, to put it, which are sort of ‘pre-imagined’ and ‘pre-interactive’ for them?

I am sure that that is not what Tolstoy had in his mind when he famously said, ‘I need only three things in life—books, books and books.’ What happens to this powerful statement of A C Gayling, who while reviewing the book A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel said: ‘To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.?’ For that matter, in the light of these background music and enhancements, what happens to Walter Savage Landor’s words: “What is reading but silent conversation?” In fact, when we look at it seriously, the loaded questioning of the title of this write-up taken from that commentator’s words, “Is a Book Still a Book if it is No Longer a Book?”, acquires deeper connotations and compels us all to think what after all is the function and role of books and reading in the making of human society and civilization and what do we mean when we say we are reading a book.

The moot question that is before us is our attitude to e-books and other APPs and enhancements related to them. Should they be seen as something that would replace the traditional books or should they be seen as versions of books. The later attitude is more logical and demands greater debate and application of thought in the Indian context. In the post-colonial world, it is time we import ideas with our minds wide open and awake and not transplant them as it happened in the 60s or so when even literary movements like ‘modernism’ and later post-modernism were simply transplanted in Indian society without realizing the different historical process through which the creative writers of India and the West have negotiated with, which was, actually speaking, at the cross-purposes. Hence, an entire generation grew up reading about the angst of the middle-class urban characters, only to realise that it is not the real angst all about in the Indian situation—let us explore the angst of the dalits, the minorities, the women and other marginalized classes.

Recently, the much-talked about film “The Dirty Picture’ was not allowed to be shown during day time by the government owing to its provocative (for want of a better expression this word is being chosen) content and scenes. Now, even a filmmaker like Mahesh Bhatt, known for being an agent provocateur and for his championing of ‘liberal ideology’,  along with some others from the film fraternity, has asked for a ‘new category’ for films that would be shown on TV—a category different from what the Censor Board grants to each film like ‘A’, ‘U’ or ‘A/U’. More so, because ‘PG’ (Parental Guidance) declaration on TV for certain films also do not work because the parents may not be always around to guide the young kids while they are watching stuff for which they may not be emotionally and psychologically trained and ready. The statement issued by this group after a meeting with the I&B ministry following ‘The Dirty Picture fiasco’ and reported in the media goes like this:

"We had a very long meeting about the psychosis that crept into "The Dirty Picture" fiasco. We, as filmmakers, put forward our concerns and requests regarding the revenue stream of the entertainment industry, how important it is for us, what will be the destiny of all the films which have an 'A' or a 'U/A' certification, and how they will be screened on Indian television," detailed Mahesh Bhatt.


"However, we also listened to the concerns and apprehensions of the ministry," Bhatt added, "We were told that home viewing is something the ministry is very vigilant about, and that going out to watch a film is totally different from watching it at home, in the presence of a young child with an impressionable mind. Which is why the content that is shown on television needs to be monitored. It was then that a 'Modified for Television Viewing' category was suggested for 'A' or 'U/A' rated films. If this category comes into being, it will have certain guidelines, like how the film needs to be sanitised for the viewing of young, innocent, impressionable minds."


The real effect e-books will have in the industry is that they will somehow become the natural choice for a lot of books that don’t do well on paper
We can take a cue from this debate and pitch for a situation where a ‘personalised/customised and enhanced’ e-book must carry a declaration stating that it is not a substitute for the original printed book and is ‘Modified for E-Reading’. Before some hair splitter sees the above comparison as linking the E-reading devices with an ‘adult’ film like ‘The Dirty Picture’, this needs to be underlined that the similarity of the two contexts stem from the issue of transfer of content from one medium to another and the dynamism of content, design and target readership/audience that are involved in it. Similarly, in a reverse situation, if a book is launched only in E form and later the publisher goes for the printed version, the printed version may carry a tagline ‘Modified for Hard Copy Reading’.

Moreover, in the Indian context, it may be worthwhile to sign off with what a reader, danielzunigarivera, from Peru said about the Forbes article:

Very interesting article. I am CEO of an independant publishing house from Peru, and my perspective on this matter is entirely different, since in South America (and a whole lot of other countries, I assume), e-books are still no match at all for printed books. For once, the devices are way too expensive for most people and if you happen to have one, security is an issue as well (it’s not very safe to walk around with an iPad, considered a very expensive device). However, I believe that the real effect e-books will have in the industry is that they will somehow become the natural choice for a lot of books that don’t do well on paper. Some of them because they have a very small market and therefore are not sustainable, some others because they don’t work well on bookstores. If anything, ebooks are the very paradigm of bibliodiversity.