Reading, the future
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.