Some technologies can ruin the very thing they try to improve.
I happened across one of these recently. The conquest of e-readers, tablets, laptops, smartphones, and their ilk over the bound and printed book means that authors can do a lot more things in their e-books than traditional books permitted. They can embed images, video, expandable notes, links between chapters, interactive content, and other obvious things to enhance the text. And, less obviously, they could include sound.
Not merely sound such as, “Here’s a recording of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech to go along with this chapter on the civil rights movement.” Sound such as, “Here is a soundtrack for the book”. Author Nathan Bransford tipped me off to this in his recent blog post Sound effects for books?, which mentions a company, Booktrack, that offers this ability. On Booktrack, users can assemble an audio track from music and other sounds to accompany a text, either their own writing or one from Booktrack’s public domain library. The completed book and audio can then be published for all the world to read and hear.
My immediate reaction to the idea was, “Ugh, no.” However, since I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, I pointed my browser to Booktrack and explored a few of the texts. After ten minutes I was done, wholly convinced: audio accompaniment to a book is a horrible idea.
Part of the problem is the technical difficulty of putting written text and sound together. People read at different paces, and your pace can change depending on what you are reading. But the Booktrack audio is synced to a little arrow that scrolls down the page at a constant rate. Almost never did the soundtrack match where I was in the text, which was distracting at best. To add to the aggravation, the background music would stop and change every time I turned the page. All of this blends into a cacophony that is only a little less annoying than trying to read with a TV or talk radio playing in the background.
I imagine audiophiles will be tinkering with the interfaces of noisy books for a long time to fix this problem. But even if it can be fixed, and the audio synchronized perfectly with the text for each reader, should we bother? Do soundtracks actually contribute anything to the experience of reading a story? I am inclined to think not, at least for fiction.
The genius of literature lies in the incredible sparseness of the art form. A written story gives its reader the bare minimum necessary to convey its message. There are no images, no sounds, no colors, no textures or smells or temperatures. It is the skeleton of an experience, and through its minimalism it grants the reader unlimited power to create the world of the story in their own imagination, with only the subtle hinting of the narrative to guide them.
As soon as one sense is provided for the reader, it diminishes the range the imagination can fill. One who simply reads the words, “A shot rang out,” can imagine the noise of that shot in infinite ways – how it echoes, how loud it is, how it blends with the other sounds around it, what direction it comes from. If instead the noise of a gunshot is played for the reader, none of this is necessary. The more sensory input that is provided, the less the imagination works. The reader goes from being a participant in the creation of the story, to an observer of the finished product.
Being an observer is not innately bad. Every form of art besides literature directly provides at least one type of sensory input. The current extreme of sensory provision in storytelling is cinema, which wholly supplies the visual and auditory components of an experience. Movies can be fantastically stimulating and enjoyable. But movies are not literature, and literature does not work like the cinema. Putting soundtracks into books seems like pushing reading to become a cinematic experience, and less imaginative than it is by nature. We should not try to force literature to take on the fortes of other art-forms, even if our technology makes it easy, for our experience will only be cheapened in the end.
And now, what do you think? Am I being a Luddite about a new and extraordinary technological possibility, or do you agree that noisy books are a bad idea?