THE mantle of Kneejerk Naysayer to Anything New hangs heavy on my shoulders today, as I write about yet another harebrained idea that has mysteriously come to fruition.
Far be it from me to discourage reading, but discourage this development, I must. As you know, many people now read books on their iPads. They stroke the screens to flip pages with that irritating hand motion that will inevitably lead to widespread “swipe fatigue,” for which we will all have to feign sympathy.
But even self-satisfied iPad users find that it’s hard to set aside a hushed moment to enjoy a book. We are all blanketed in layers of media, to the point where we’re now addicted.
The brother of one Paul Cameron, for example, was trying to read a book and listen to his iPod simultaneously and found himself unable to fully concentrate. Rather than thinking, as you or I might, “Maybe I should turn off my iPod or stop reading,” it occurred to him that noise should be introduced to books – which, as you know, are painfully silent. Evidently, his entrepreneurial sibling agreed. Paul Cameron is now co-founder and chief executive of the New York start-up Booktrack, which makes e-books with soundtracks and musical accompaniments for iPads, iPhones and, eventually, Google’s competing Android phones and tablets.
“Sometimes life gets in the way of a good read,” Booktrack’s website audibly informs us, in a video that intrudes ambient sounds like honking car horns on the reading experience of a bookish commuter, who immediately puts on earphones. “Enter Booktrack. By blending inspired sound design with great stories, Booktrack creates a totally high-def immersive reading experience. Ambient audio, sound effects and music are carefully synchronized, celebrating the imagery of the author’s text, and drawing you deeper into the story. With Booktrack, reading isn’t just words on a page, it’s a truly sensory experience.”
Personally, I’ve always liked the fact that words on a page form pictures in my own imagination. England’s The Daily Mail headlined its story about Booktrack “That’s the end of a quiet read.” One e-mail wag responded with “That’s awesome! Next we should replace the text with moving pictures…”
Indeed. If we readers were looking for a “truly sensory experience,” we’d wait for the 3-D movie to come to the iPad, which it surely will.
Alarmingly, Booktrack’s slogan is “Hear the future of reading.” I remember my toddlers enjoying the odd gimmicky book where they could press buttons to get complementary sounds. It gave them no end of fun to make Cookie Monster say “Me want cookie.” Have adults really devolved that far?
At present, Booktrack’s virtual shelves offer a handful of fairy tales, two sci-fi thrillers, and a work by Sherlock Holmes. I spent a few seconds online reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, with a soundscape of pouring rain, and “the wild scream of a terrified voice.” These silly effects reminded me of that Hallowe'en soundtrack I used to blare from behind our jack-o-lantern to scare trick-or-treaters. Does Conan Doyle really need help setting a mood?
I suppose that when Booktrack’s Huckleberry Finn appears, there will be a lot of random splashing as Huck and the escaped slave Jim navigate the Mississippi on their raft. If only Booktrack could add the smell of grits bubblin’ ‘pon woodstoves along the riv-uh, lawdy, mah sens’ry ’xperience would be complete.
If Mark Twain isn’t yet rolling in his grave, stay tuned for an earthquake when William Shakespeare and Jane Austen get wind of this. Booktrack is jazzing up some of their most famous works. As readers mentally traipse into Mr. Darcy’s garden, for example, they’ll be able to hear the sound of china cups clinking, if not of Mr. Darcy’s breeches rubbing together when he bursts, dripping, from the lake. I expect that when the “corpse” of Juliet is placed in the tomb in Romeo and Juliet, she’ll disturb a vocal family of bats. Here’s hopin’!
The New York Times points out that adding an audible element to books is nothing new, since some authors have suggested playlists to accompany their novels. Those authors, however, chose that music themselves – they didn’t have it imposed on their work afterwards, with no say in the matter.
True techies, bless them, appear to be averse. Charlie Sorrel at Wired.com heads up his remarks with “Bad Ideas: Booktrack Adds Sound Effects, Music to Books.” “Booktrack: Just a Horrible Idea. Really Horrible,” writes Paul Carr at Techcrunch.com.
But businessinsider.com’s Alyson Shontell writes that “An Awesome Startup Launched Today That Could Change How You Read Books Forever.” (Her use of the word “awesome” in a headline is one hint that shrewd opinions may be scarce on the ground.) Shontell claims to have gone off into a corner at the Booktrack launch party, put on headphones and begun listening to “Da Vinci Code,” as she calls it. “Immediately, music started to play appropriately with the words,” she marvels. “Right as we read a line about a door slamming shut, we heard the exact same sound.”
Hee-haw! It’s almost like that tel-uh-vision thang.