My friends and I like to debate the future of books and reading. (For us, this has more appeal than politics or football.) There are the pro-e-readers in the group who are looking to carry half of their libraries in their smart phones and there are the anti e-readers who are happiest with the traditional paper pages in their hand. I enjoy the debates but until recently I believed the only difference between traditional and electronic books was the carrying case. After all, they were both just printed words on a flat surface, right? Nope. When it comes to ebooks, words may be just the beginning.
My favorite ereader has a nifty gadget: an incorporated dictionary that lets me highlight any word in the text I don’t know so the definition will pop up without me having to close the page. There’s an encyclopedia link there too. Very helpful. Now I’ve learned that someone has developed ebooks for little kids that have animated pictures mixed in with the text and links in the text (like my dictionary) that helps youngsters understand new words. Kids with the interactive and animated illustration books gained more in story understanding and vocabulary than those with standard illustrations and no interactive features.
It occurred to me that this interactive feature could enhance books for grownups as well. For example, Richard Adams wrote beautifully about land in Watership Down but most who initially read the book, had no idea he was describing an actual piece of land in Hampshire. With some links to panoramic photographs of the area…
… you can understand why one of the characters exclaims “You can see the whole world from here!” Now imagine other ways to enhance the text. With proper licencing and agreements in place readers could pause and watch video of rabbits running up this hill after reading the paragraph. With a touch of a link, the sounds of wind in the hills could be added. With such technology authors could do more than just describe a melody wafting through the room of the mystery; readers could hear the music while they read the paragraph. As technology matures and incorporates more sensory inputs, (touch and smell attachments are expected to be incorporated within the next ten years) books can take on the added depths.
Technology is also turning reading into something more than a solitary experience. Finding a great book is a wonderful experience but it’s frustrating when there’s no one to share it with. Social media sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing have started to bring bibliophiles together (they’re the Facebook site for book-nerds) but a few other sites allow community reading. That is, a member uploads the electronic book they own to the site and other members are able to read it, highlight text and make digital notes for other readers to see so you are engaging with others as you read the book. I haven’t seen anything like that since the last Harry Potter book was published. Those pre-midnight parties did more than allow people to dress up and have fun while they waited to pick up a book. It was a rare time of community for readers. We may not see a reading phenomenon like that in our lifetimes (the only comparable I can think of is when Americans gathered on the docks, clamoring for the latest installment of a Dickens story to be unloaded from ships) but technology allows readers to use their love of books to connect to others instead of isolating them. That’s got to be a change for the good.
Does that mean I think traditional books are bad or doomed? Perish the thought, at least during the rest of our lifetimes. Traditional books are an ingrained part of our lives. That being said, I believe progress only moves forward and that technological advances may change the way we read. As long as reading continues, I’m happy.