The Next Generation Digital Book: A Whole New Way to Read

As a bit of a purist on the book front, it’s been a rocky road to accept anything not printed on paper and bound by a soft cover. When e-readers first became popular, I was there, standing on the proverbial soapbox, lamenting to disinterested friends the decline of bookshelves, the end of book publishing. I overreacted, of course, but it was too tempting not to indulge in the melodramatic idea that books would go the way of LPs, that I was one of the select guardians of “the old school.” In reality, I was a bit of a snob.

In the end, it was the convenience of an e-reader that got me. Safety came in at a close second (I was almost crushed one night reading Ken Follet’s World Without Enda 1024 page death trap in hardback), but mainly the sheer usefulness of a Kindle wore me down. Yet I still never looked at e-books as anything more than a lighter load for my daily commute. The equivalent of an audio book on a long car ride–they just don’t add anything to the reading experience for me. Nothing compares to the weightiness of a good, solid book in your hands (even if it does threaten to collapse a lung).

But then, when I wasn’t paying attention, e-books began to change.

With the advent of smart phones and tablets, the landscape of digital books has changed, becoming ever more creative. The next generation of digital books doesn’t seek to just transfer words from page to screen, but rather to supplement the experience of reading a book in ways unique to its interface.

Take artist Raghava KK’s children’s book POP-IT for example. The book was not so much written as it was specifically designed for an iPad. Raghava’s motive to create the book was the same as that of many children’s fiction writers; he set out to teach children a lesson, specifically empathy, through a story:

How could he teach young children the benefits of multiple perspectives with clear immediacy? Raghava concluded that people’s minds and children’s literature needed a shake-up. Literally. He explains the iBook’s unique feature:

If you notice carefully, it’s a homosexual couple bringing up a child. Don’t like it? Shake it, and you have a lesbian couple…

Only when you teach perspectives will a child be able to imagine and put themselves in the shoes of someone else who is different from them… I can’t promise my child a life without bias–we’re all biased–but I promise to bias my child with multiple perspectives.

While the lesson may be nothing new to the realm of children’s literature, its delivery certainly is. And so it begs the question: to what extent will this change the way we experience literature? Are interactive iBooks and e-books simply a flashier, though essentially superfluous format, like pop-up books? Or does the capacity to integrate multiple medias vastly affect the way we internalize a story?

In some cases, it will: I suppose our feelings towards interactive books then depend on each one’s purpose. Textbooks and children’s books most readers would forgive outright, or, more likely, rejoice in. Imagine the capacity to assist students with learning disabilities, for instance. I personally could get behind a poetry collection that includes recordings of the poets themselves, or a version of The Canterbury Tales that contains audio of the original Middle English speech–what great teaching tools! Last year Al Gore teamed up with a group of software developers to release Our Choice, a digital sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth.” For a non-scientific brain like mine, the embedded videos certainly clarify the content. Do we really need to be able to make a windmill move by blowing onto an iPad screen? Not really, but it is fun, and in the end you’ve learned something.

In such cases, the ability to switch from text to video doesn’t detract from the content on the page. In fact, it betters it. What happens, though, when the first really big multimedia novel is released? Or worse, when a classic gets a movie studio makeover, clips from the latest adaptation imported between the pages? What happens when the source of entertainment is no longer the joy of reading itself? We may have to learn a whole new way to read. This is where my excitement really turns to apprehensiveness.

While I welcome the idea of a digitized book offering something more than sheer convenience, I’m not altogether certain I’ll like the outcome every time. Educational books? Great. Novels? I just don’t know. True, a more experimental author like Safran Foer could probably do something truly exciting with this media. I’m willing to hold my breath. And though I may still indulge from time to time in the apocalyptic fantasy that books will one day cease to be as we now know them, I think we can all be certain that the joy of reading good stories will never go away, no matter what form they someday take.

What’s your take on digitally interactive books? Feel free to sound off below.