Last week Publishers Lunch featured a guide to the latest eReaders coming down the pike (here). It’s fascinating and makes me think of all kinds of possibilities for the future. The new readers will have terrific uses in business, for games, for keeping up on news, for editors and others in publishing, and many more. Cool.
But I started asking myself: What does this mean for the future of the plain old book?
I’ve read dozens of articles lately that predict books in the future will be “so much more” than just words on a page (and they always say it as if it’s a good thing). Books will be “more interactive” with links embedded, and games, and choose-your-own-endings, and video pop-ups at certain points in the story… and who knows what else. The possibilities are limited only by the brilliant imaginations of those who create these technologies, which is to say practically endless.
I’m going out on a limb here to say one thing: I’m not buying it. And I don’t think you are either.
Sure, there will be an audience for these technologies. And I think all those applications will be especially awesome for non-fiction books, which will become totally different animals than they are now. Imagine a cookbook with video embedded showing you exactly how to truss that duck. Imagine math books that allow you to work a problem and then tell you if your answer is right or wrong. Imagine a Sunday morning without your fingers covered in newsprint ink as you peruse the happenings in the world. All very cool.
But What About Fiction?
What about the art of storytelling, which is thousands of years old? The only major thing that changed about storytelling in all of human history, despite practically everything else about human life changing, is that it went from verbal to written. Other than that, it has always been the same.
It’s a pure art form, and I think that no matter what happens in technology, the desire for stories, with no bells and whistles, just words, will always remain.
But what about the “interactivity” people crave? Well duh—books are already a wonderfully interactive form of entertainment. The writer provides the words. The reader provides the visuals, all in their imagination. The reader also brings a whole lifetime of assumptions, perspectives, opinions—a background that provides a context in which they experience the story. As readers, we love the interplay with the author’s words, and our ability to see the story on the movie screen of our minds, feel the story in our hearts.
Not only is it interactive, it’s intimate. Our private responses to a story are ours alone, and there’s a special kind of relationship that forms between writer and reader when a connection is made.
You Can Keep Your Bells and Whistles
In my opinion, nothing will improve upon the experience of simply reading (or hearing) a story, told with words alone, and allowing our hearts and minds to complete the experience. This is a large part of why you are a writer, too. The connection between yourself and the reader is something you crave.
Ever wondered why TV and movies never completely replaced books? Ever wonder why the advent of music videos didn’t destroy our enjoyment of simply listening to music? This is why. We enjoy the specific kind of interactivity—collaboration, if you will—that a story or a piece of music allows us.
People who love to read are specifically the kind of people who don’t want too much handed to them, taking away from their ability to imagine. This is why I’ve never liked music videos. Music has been a huge part of my life since I was a child, and I always loved the way a song spurred my imagination, producing pictures and whole entire stories. When music videos came along, they never captured my vision of the song. They took away from my personal connection to the music, layering someone else’s pictures on top of it. In watching a video I was keenly aware that I was being shown someone else’s emotional connection to it. I didn’t want someone else’s. I wanted my own.
Most of you know that I love movies, and I enjoy some television programs too (when I have time to watch them). I can even get into a Wii game now and then (although I’ve never played a video game in my life unless you count Scrabble). I love the Internet, I love my Blackberry, and I have a deep appreciation for how technology has changed my life. But to me, all of that is totally different from the special experience of reading a novel. All the technological interactivity in the world will never replace my love for words on a page.
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