Read­ing, the fu­ture

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - The­fan­tas­ticfly­ing­book­sofmr.mor­ris­less­more

if there is to be a rad­i­cally changed fu­ture for read­ing, a gen­uinely multi-me­dia ap­proach is surely the way to go.

IT is an odd feel­ing that the fu­ture of pub­lish­ing may lit­er­ally be in my hands. On my iPad I have the app of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; The Fan­tas­tic Fly­ing Books Of Mr. Mor­ris Less­more, the game chang­ing an­i­ma­tion-meets-e-book app by Moon­bot Stu­dios; and five just re­leased e-books from Book­track, the com­pany that makes sound­tracks for ebooks.

What these very dif­fer­ent pub­li­ca­tions have in com­mon is an in­ter­ac­tive ap­proach that is tak­ing the pub­lish­ing world by storm and chal­leng­ing the process of read­ing as we have known it since the pub­li­ca­tion of the Guten­berg Bi­ble some 600 years ago.

In case you missed the hype, the bril­liant Waste Land app (re­viewed here in July) that was re­leased in June ac­tu­ally topped the iPad app charts in Au­gust, sur­pass­ing even sales of the mega pop­u­lar An­gry Birds game!

It is not hard to see why. The app of­fers not only the text of the poem but mul­ti­ple read­ings by Eliot him­self as well as distin­guised au­thors and ac­tors, a copy of the orig­i­nal type­script with editor Ezra Pound’s al­ter­ations, a filmed per­for­mance of the poem by Fiona Shaw, a num­ber of crit­i­cal perspectives and a gallery of re­lated pho­tographs and im­ages.

It’s an im­pres­sive pack­age more than worth its modest pur­chase price (US$13.99 or about RM45) and, more to the point for purists like me, of­fer­ing an al­to­gether richer ex­pe­ri­ence of the text by pulling to­gether a lot of hith­erto rare or un­avail­able ma­te­rial. Bril­liant.

Al­most more elab­o­rate in con­cep­tion is The Fan­tas­tic Fly­ing Books Of Mr. Mor­ris Less­more, the No.1 best­seller from Moon­bot Stu­dios, de­scribed by its author Wil­liam Joyce as “a love let­ter through film and tech­nol­ogy to the beau­ti­ful thing that is a book and how they should be revered and cher­ished”.

The story is as book-bound as the most tra­di­tional reader could hope for, its open­ing words mark­ing its ter­ri­tory: “Mor­ris Less­more loved words. He loved sto­ries. He loved books”. He spends his days car­ing for them in a li­brary, loans them and writes his own life story that is handed on to oth­ers when he “moves on”.

This is a book about the cu­ra­tive power of story. Ex­cept that it is not a book at all but an app that has been de­vel­oped with im­mense care, pa­tience and skill to com­bine Pixar-qual­ity graph­ics with a hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence that bring im­ages to life and of­fers the reader the op­tions of a sound­track, of silently read­ing the tale or of be­ing read to, and an op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with the out­stand­ing graph­ics.

It’s an en­chant­ing pack­age and un­sur­pris­ingly it has won a whole string of awards since its re­lease in May.

Moon­bot now has over 30 staff de­vel­op­ing up to 20 sto­ries. It is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that chil­dren’s pub­lish­ing will ever be quite the same again.

The lat­est ar­rivals on my iPad are the five ti­tles from Book­track. These di­vide into chil­dren’s sto­ries and more adult pub­li­ca­tions. The chil­dren’s ti­tles in­clude old favourites like Hansel And Gre­tel, The Ugly Duck­ling, and Ricki Ticki Tavi (a story from Rud­yard Ki­pling’s Jun­gle Book). I was pleased to see Os­car Wilde’s The Self­ish Gi­ant there as well and opted to judge the ef­fec­tive­ness of Book­track’s de­vel­op­ments by read­ing it to a five-year-old and then quizzing him on whether he liked the sound ef­fects and sound­track that ac­com­pa­nied my read­ing. The an­swer was an un­equiv­o­cal “yes!”

Book­track’s apps are less am­bi­tious than ei­ther The Waste Land or Mr. Mor­ris but could be­come more wide­spread, as the rel­a­tively straight­for­ward tech­nol­ogy can be ap­plied pretty much to any text.

It works by as­sess­ing your read­ing speed (there is ac­tu­ally a test for this should you be so in­clined; other­wise it will work it out from the pace at which you “turn” the pages) and then match­ing a sound­track to the text as you read.

You do the read­ing – there is no be­ing read to op­tion – and what you get from Book­track is a sound­track and some sound ef­fects. A cur­sor run­ning down the right hand side of the page shows that you are in synch and if you get out of line, a dou­ble tap on any word will up­date the sound­track to your read­ing lo­ca­tion. Sim­ple but ef­fec­tive.

The Self­ish Gi­ant opens to the sound of chil­dren play­ing in the gar­den and some jolly theme mu­sic that changes to the howl- ing North Wind and the sound of shat­tered chim­ney pots fol­lowed by the rain fall­ing and then mu­sic sig­nalling the ar­rival of Spring. Es­sen­tially, this is ap­ply­ing the film tech­nique of height­en­ing at­mos­phere and emo­tion by pro­vid­ing a suit­able mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment. And for chil­dren it works well. It cer­tainly got my grand­child’s vote.

So far, Book­track’s adult ti­tles are lim­ited but many more are in de­vel­op­ment. I set­tled on the Sherlock Holmes story, The Ad­ven­ture Of The Speck­led Band.

Ini­tially, I had some prob­lems match­ing my read­ing speed to the cur­sor and there­fore the sound­track. The read­ing speed test largely sorted that out but the as­sump­tion made by the tech­nol­ogy is that we read at an even pace. This is not al­to­gether true in prac­tice – there are in­ter­rup­tions, our con­cen­tra­tion lapses, our minds wan­der and we end up out of synch. A dou­ble tap on a word to ef­fect the read­just­ment is not dif­fi­cult but it is mildly in­tru­sive.

A more im­por­tant ques­tion is whether as adult read­ers we ac­tu­ally need or want our imag­i­nary world ac­com­pa­nied by some rather lit­eral sound ef­fects.

“It was a wild night. The wind was howl­ing out­side, and the rain was beat­ing and splash­ing against the win­dows. Sud­denly, amid all the hub­bub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a ter­ri­fied wo­man” wrote Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle, and sure enough, right on cue, come the sound ef­fects of howl­ing wind, lash­ing rain and the scream of a ter­ri­fied wo­man.

Whether or not this ap­peals to you is prob­a­bly a mat­ter of in­di­vid­ual taste but what is cer­tain is that more pub­li­ca­tions like this are go­ing to be­come avail­able.

The in­dus­try has far reach­ing plans to de­velop what Book­track de­scribes as “a rad­i­cal new tech­nol­ogy that along­side dig­i­tal rep­re­sents the largest ad­vance­ment in read­ing”, in­clud­ing the re-re­lease later this year of a Sal­man Rushdie story fea­tur­ing mu­sic played by the New Zealand Sym­phony Or­ches­tra.

Whether or not the ad­di­tion of a sound­track to a text re­ally pro­vides, as Book­track claims, “a to­tally im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence that pulls the reader into the author’s world and al­lows the real world to melt away”, I am un­con­vinced. Read­ing has al­ways done that.

The re­ally ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ments seem to me to lie with the gen­uinely in­no­va­tive work that the Waste Land and Mr. Mor­ris apps rep­re­sent. If there is to be a rad­i­cally changed fu­ture for read­ing, a gen­uinely multi-me­dia ap­proach is surely the way it’s go­ing to go.

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