I am a lover of the written word. I don’t much care about the exact format. I do like when I can flip through a print book. When reading a book in print, there is often a visual memory of where a particular topic, incident or character is mentioned. And of course, one doesn’t have to worry about the battery dying.
But at the same time there are things I enjoy more when reading an e-book. Firstly, the fact I can buy it instantly. If I read about a book and decide I must read it, I don’t have to wait to go to a book-store or for an online store to deliver it. One click is all it takes and voila I am immersed in the book. I also like that I don’t have to plan which books to carry or leave behind while travelling. Another great asset is that if I don’t understand what a word means- I can find out instantly with very less distraction. No need to go searching for my dictionary. I have realized that even when you think you know the approximate meaning of a word, or can guess it from the context, the enjoyment you derive from knowing the exact meaning is substantial. While reading print-books, however, I usually skip looking the word up in the dictionary. I don’t want to interrupt my reading unless it is absolutely necessary.
As long as we are talking about written words, I am not an extremist in the e-book versus print book debate. The place I do get a bit squeamish is when the talk turns to so-called ‘enhanced’ books. Experiments in this area have just started, so we may not yet have a crisp definition of when a book stops being a simple e-book and starts becoming enhanced. But I will assume that as soon as the book starts incorporating things beyond words and images, it begins to fall in the category of enhanced books. This I believe includes embedding or linking to audio-video resources within the content of the book.
When done in the appropriate context, I like the idea of combining media with books. Images are an integral part of print books and have been forever. And now, e-books present even more opportunities to include audio and visual effects. For example, if a book is about music, or public speaking and pronunciation, it makes perfect sense that the reader should have access to relevant audio. But consider this. When reading a great piece of fiction, I find it difficult to visualise when a landscape is described in words. In an enhanced book I might do a long press on the paragraph and an image or video depicting the landscape would pop up. Or an actual photo or video of the place being described is presented. Unlike finding the meaning of a word instantaneously, that does not interest me. I want all the advantages of great writing, and with that the enjoyment of using one’s imagination. Unlike operating a household appliance, reading fiction is not about doing things in the easiest and quickest way. A great book challenges all of your senses. When fully involved in a book and its author, characters, even the language, descriptions, unfamiliar phrases, I want to feel my imagination soar, and my spirits lifted.
Another aspect of enhanced books is the children’s market. This genre is getting a lot of attention from the proponents of enhanced books. Picture books are how most children learn to read. Given how quickly children are taking to tablets and apps, it probably makes sense to enhance children’s books. Anything to get a child to read! And yet – if done indiscriminately, it can attract the children to books without providing them any of the advantages associated with reading. I recently read about this research, which points out how too much stimulation in books actually can distract a child and in so doing the books are not improving the child’s reading comprehension at all. If children are more attracted towards animation and videos, it still doesn’t make sense to convert books into videos in the name of enhancement. We might as well just produce videos.
My guess is the love affair with enhanced e-books will go through the same euphoric period that every new technology goes through. Dreams will be sold, lots of experiments will take place and a large number of those will look foolish in retrospect. But finally, we will settle down to the things that makes the most sense. I just hope that when the dust settles, I am still left to figure out the landscape from the words I am reading, and books do not start looking like videos with same-language subtitles. For me, the written word is precious and timeless! Let’s enhance them when suitable, but let’s not lose them!