Rise of the super-books: Is interactivity the future of reading?

Rise of the super-books: Is interactivity the future of reading?

Given the way that iPad commercials tout it as a tool for playing games, creating art, surfing the web, and managing work, it’s easy to forget that the device was developed in part as a challenge to Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle. And though as an e-reader the iPad is in many ways inferior—from its outdoor screen-glare to its eye-straining backlight—the iPad did leap ahead of the competition immediately on a couple of fronts. It’s an outstanding way to read comics, for one. (The screen is comic-book-sized, the device can hold thousands and thousands of pages much easier than human hands can, and the backlighting gives color pages in particular a warm glow, not unlike a stained-glass window.) It’s also been an ideal format for reference books, allowing a cookbook app or a biology textbook app to supplement the text with videos, audio, and charts.

I’ve been trying out a number of interactive book apps over the past few months, and thinking about which features enhance the reading experience on a tablet, and which detract. And I’ve been finding that every time I get excited about the potential for this new technology, I get stymied by some unnecessary frippery or ungainly choices—gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks. For example:

Our Choice. Based on Al Gore’s book of the same name, this app continues the former vice president’s efforts to educate the public on the causes of (and possible remedies to) climate change. I’m not here to examine the claims made in the book, or the politics surrounding Gore’s campaign. I’m interested in Our Choice strictly as an app, and on that count, it comes up wanting. Its biggest user-specific interactive feature is a globe that shows how far (or near) the reader is to the “brown cloud” in India, or other environmental hazards. The app’s interactive charts aren’t that much better than conventional charts; more often than not, the user just places his or her finger on a bar and data appears, which could’ve been handled in print just as well. There are a few upsides to Our Choice in this form, however. The book’s pictures—some of which unfold, some of which move, and some of which have audio—are more dynamic than they would be in print. And the archival footage of older environmental catastrophes is pretty powerful. (Actually, the shots of London’s 1952 “killer smog” are terrifying.) Plus, in the app version of Our Choice, Gore reads aloud his own poem about climate change. To paraphrase The Simpsons: You are hearing him talk.

War In The Pacific. This brief overview of the battles that took place in the Pacific theater during WWII reads more like an actual book, with very few supplemental features or show-offy bells-and-whistles (outside of the literal bells and whistles of the un-turn-off-able martial soundtrack). The main enhancements to the text come in the form of pull-down factoids and expandable photos, neither of which offer a significant advantage over print. But the maps are helpful, since they can be enlarged and explored in ways that would be difficult in a book. And the handful of embedded documents—like the full copy of Yank magazine that appears in one chapter—are undeniably nifty.

The Sixties. Here’s an app that makes full use of the iPad’s near-infinite space, albeit with questionable editorial control. The original content comes in the form of a very broad outline of the history, culture, and politics of each year of the 1960s, illustrated by eye-rollingly cutesy cartoons. The rest of the app is dedicated to aggregating content freely available on the web: YouTube videos, iTunes audio samples, and Wikipedia entries. The aggregation is nice in theory, because users don’t have to leave the app to hear the music clips or watch the videos. But the YouTube selections don’t appear to have been curated at all; the selections look like the first options that pop up after an average YouTube search. (Select Wild River from “The Movies Of 1960,” for example, and the video that appears is one of those sleazy “Click Here To Download Full Movie” come-ons that clutter up YouTube.)

On The Way To Woodstock. This app, on the other hand, is a lot more intelligently assembled, though its content leans toward generic, boomer-friendly “the ’50s were square, but the ’60s were radical” analysis. Still, the Woodstock app allows the user to play audio snippets in the background while reading factoids, which is a plus, and the creators clearly considered the embedded YouTube videos, which run the gamut from old industrial films to footage of the acts who played Woodstock. There’s no actual musical footage from Woodstock, however (as far as I could tell). Also, I ran across a few dead video clips, where the material has likely been pulled from YouTube because of copyright claims, which is a peril creators of these aggregator apps will have to consider. Also, while users can choose to watch the video clips on their Apple TVs via the AirPlay function, they can’t go back to reading the app’s content until the video’s over. Then again, there’s so little actual text in On The Way To Woodstock that users won’t be missing much.

Dracula. Here’s where reformatting a book for the iPad begins to resemble actual innovation. The Dracula app takes an abridged version of Bram Stoker’s gothic classic and adds animated illustrations, atmospheric sounds, and at least one gimmick per page. Some pages change color over the course of a minute, while others come cloaked in darkness, or contain special maps or letters. Those gimmicks—while neat—become distracting after a while. About 20 pages in, I began rushing ahead to get to the next little goodie, and eventually stopped bothering to move the rosary or light the match or do whatever else I was supposed to do to read Stoker’s actual words. I can see the potential in an interactive-reading app like this one, but Dracula itself seems a little overstuffed.

The Unwanted Guest. More an animated short than a book, this adaptation of an old Jewish folktale can be read in a conventional way, but it works just as well—better, really—as a cartoon with voiceover narration. The interactivity level of the app is fairly low, outside of allowing the user to move objects and words on the screen by tilting the device (and aside from allowing users to record their own narration). But I could see this format as a potential avenue for comics creators to explore. It’s like a motion-comic, but more artful.

There are a lot of other interactive books available for the iPad and other tablets, including Alice In Wonderland (one of the first of its kind) and a version of the Sesame Street classic The Monster At The End Of This Book that my kids enjoy (when it’s not freezing up on them). But the potential is there, though, to do so much more with this technology—to develop an entirely new medium, perhaps. I’d love to see multimedia artists combine their music, videos, and poems into an immersive environment, or a master essayist aggregate existing materials in a more thoughtful way than the creators of The Sixties and On The Road To Woodstock have. If these apps already exist, please tell me about them, because outside of some arty games, I haven’t seen anything like what I’m looking for.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t think books themselves need to be improved, any more than music or movies do. I don’t want to choose my own ending when I go to the multiplex, and I don’t want my thesaurus to make words dance. Most conventional forms of entertainment and education are fine the old-fashioned way. But if the opportunity exists to make something original—to exploit the virtues of the touchscreen and the storage capabilities of the Internet—I’d like to see writers and filmmakers and animators and musicians try it, to create works that entertain, inform, and even awe.

If high-art interactive books existed, would there be a market for them? Eventually, yes. Some adults cringe at the idea of reading anything long-form on a screen, so they’re going to be hard to convince that something worthwhile is happening with literature in a non-print environment. But children already have a sense of what to do when they read or play on a tablet, and not just because there are so many kid-friendly apps available. They’re prepared because even the print books they’re reading these days have been laying the groundwork for the future.

My children read books completely unlike what was available during my youth (at least on a mass scale). Some of the most popular children’s fiction today—like the Pseudonymous Bosch “secret” series, or Patrick Carman’s Trackers—aspire to a kind of metafiction, turning the book itself into an object to explore, complete with lists, recipes, e-mails, footnotes, sidebars, direct addresses to the readers, and sometimes even links to websites that continue the story off-page. Someday, my children will be doing the bulk of their reading on an e-reader, and judging by the kind of books they read now, they’ll be ready. By then, maybe the publishers will too.