Response to: Are Enhanced E-book Apps Worth It?

I’d like to offer a small defense of enhanced e-book apps here, not because I’m a die-hard enthusiast, but because I take issue with the way that the author (Abigail Esman) of this article degrades them.  Not joking here: Esman characterizes enhanced e-books as imagination killers that put American literacy at risk.  By the end of the article, one might have been led down the rabbit trail into thinking that enhanced e-books will increase crime in America, because, you know, less literacy = more crime.  

 Before I kick this off, I want to say that I draw a blurry distinction between an enhanced e-book application and a book.  A “book” to me will always be static text, be it digital or physical, sometimes accompanied by illustrations.  Enhanced e-books, replete with sound, hyperlinks, and other effects, are not “books”, however much these media overlap.   Sometimes, the overlap is such that experiencing an enhanced e-book is nearly identical to the experience of reading a book.  An e-book that is laden with effects and interactivity might overlap more with games, movies, and other multimedia, while still containing most of the “book” experience.  

Like most people who embark on an attack on some newfangled tech, Esman cites her love of some tech joys (she loves that she can email and fit a lot of books on her iPad!).  But, “they have, like everything, their own place.”   At this point in the article my interest is piqued, in the same way that a student who loves technology more than their teachers might be curious to hear what their teachers have to say about the “right time and place for technology”.

After a quick mention about how “real”, non-enhanced books are better than movies (not always true, e.g. Hunger Games), Esman embarks on a diatribe about how enhanced e-books are killing imaginations.  

And it’s not just a matter of books – or novels, since that’s what we’re mostly talking about here — being better than their movie versions, though there is that.  It’s a matter, too, of what this does to the minds of app-book readers, more and more of whom have no life experience without the “enhancement” of multiple simultaneous platforms, sensory overstimulation, and a general passivity of mind.  Who needs imaginary playmates anymore when real ones are a thumb-tap away? Why visualize a friend’s new dress when she can snap a photo and send it to you faster than she can even try it on? “Not how I imagined it” is becoming, more and more, a phrase gone obsolete, at least when it comes to questions of sound and sight (fortunately the three remaining sense have not been virtualized. Yet.)

This gets into some issues that are far broader than enhanced e-books, but the point here is that enhanced e-books seek to leave little to the imagination, while regular books spark imaginative play, compelling the reader to imagine what it is that a static text can only describe, not explicitly reveal.  (Quick aside – it’s going to be awesome when those three senses have been virtualized; look for touch, at least, to be virtualized on the next iPad).   Esman continues:

What shade of yellow is Cathy’s bedroom in one of my childhood favorites, A Room for Cathy?  Do I need to know the exact hue the author, Catherine Woolley, had in mind when she was writing?


Esman describes with detail (TMI?) how much A Room for Cathy meant to her.  

 I read that book to pieces: five times, six times, twenty.  I know just what Cathy’s little sister looked like, and her sister’s bright pink room. I knew what the Racketty-Packetty house looked like, too, in the book of that same name, and Sara Crew, with tight blonde curls, and Jo March, with her long black ones.

Her Jo March was special, because she didn’t look like anyone else’s Jo March, etc.  The experience was great because it was fantasy, a world made the way she wanted it, while still “remaining within the contours of the descriptions, the images, of the authors whose words I cherished”.  Leaving aside the question of whether or not Esman’s Jo March actually DID correspond with the author’s Jo March, I wonder here what Esman thinks about film as an imagination starter.  Movies lay out all the visuals and effects – talk about enhanced books!  Because they leave little to the viewer’s imagination in terms of visualizations and such, do movies then fail to stimulate the imagination and provoke thoughtful questions in their viewers?  I don’t think so.  Do the really important issues that good books raise revolve around how the scene looks and other such details?  I don’t think so.   When it comes to how books make readers think, there are far more important questions than what the protagonist’s hair looks like, e.g. “is this protagonist a hero? why?”.  Although a movie answers all the questions in terms of how things look and sound, the most important questions still remain.   These questions are intellectual questions, and they ask the reader to do far more than imagine what something looks or sounds like.  They ask the reader about what is right or wrong, what makes a hero a hero, what is love, etc.  Enhanced books, however enhanced they might be, still contain those questions.

Esman wonders: do we need sound effects to know that Edgar Allan Poe is scary?  No, we don’t need them.   Some readers might want them, though, and if they help out readers who otherwise have a hard time interpreting the gist of the poem, why not? And if this is just throwing a bone to those who don’t have the interpretive skills or the imagination of Esman, then I’ll keep throwin’.  I’d rather have kids reading enhanced Poe than no Poe at all.    So, such effects are not needs, and every time the word need is in this article (often) I have the same reaction: no one said that enhanced e-books were needs, many awesome things are not needs, and things can still be useful without being needed.  

Esman discusses an enhanced e-book that places a sound-effect (a scream) within the reading experience:

And this is what I’m talking about. I don’t need to hear the scream. Good writing will create that scream for me. (Which, for that matter, brings up another problem I have with this whole thing: will we, soon, be judging books not for how well or how beautifully or how effectively they are written, but how cool the special effects and “enhancements” are?  And even as I ask this, I already know the – frankly, depressing – answer. Besides which, the idea that my reading experience is somehow being connected to a pre-programmed alert based on the speed at which my iris scans the page is just – well – creepy.)

No.  We will be judging enhanced e-books based on how provocatively they modify the traditional reading experience, but our parameters for how we judge books will remain the same.  And yeah, no real surprises that Esman finds the intelligence of an application “creepy”.  One hopes that Esman is prepared to be really creeped out by the future.  

But I read on, now with words like “dangerous” and “fear” entering the mix.  Esman fears that enhanced e-books will “rob from readers the experience of make-believe”.  She “fears for children whose imaginations will grow as flaccid and flabby as their bodies”. Is that necessary?  Reading anything at all won’t help this latter problem, and as for the first problem I’ll reiterate my point that I prioritize the intellectual questions that literature raises, not the imagination-effect that Esman cherishes.  If readers will be interested in or attracted to some of the enhancements that this new wave of e-books provides, and thus more inclined to tackle the ideas contained within, then power to the enhancements.  

I am in total accord with Ensman when she continues:

I fear for those who may never know how to internalize what is not a part of their experience: to imagine heartbreak, to experience the anguish of loss or the wide rapture of discovery, when it is not their own loss, their own discovery, their own heartbreak.  This is what language, what fiction, breeds within us in the act of reading a good book, well written.

Last I checked, there is no enhancement on an ebook that tries to somehow “imagine” or somehow present heartbreak or anguish for the reader.  If the reader is wrapped up in the story, especially one that the reader feels really immersed in (cue enhancements), they will feel the anguish.  E-book enhancements don’t seem to be in the business of taking emotional heft out of stories.  But now:

This matters.

Maybe not in a business sense, but certainly in a civilized one: it is what we call “empathy,” and without it, we are doomed.

I say this not with the intention of being melodramatic or to hyperbolize, but because I am certain it is true.

Esman closes her article by citing statistics about reading, literacy, and crime.   In a nutshell, lower literacy = more crime.  So, whether it was Esman’s “intention” or not:  ugh.  

Enhanced e-books will not lower literacy rates (um…doesn’t one still have to read  or hear the book, however enhanced?), and they do not seek to remove the core of what makes a book provocative and intellectually stimulating.  I suspect that they will be good jumping-off points for readers who are just beginning to engage with books and thus become more motivated to read generally.   Also, one can denigrate the word “cool”, but a lot of these enhanced e-books are straight up cool.  I’ve read a few, and I think my imagination remained intact.  In fact, it was still stimulated.  There is something to be said for a more “immersive” experience, even if it is different than what a regular paperback provides.  

Authors and developers should be encouraged to venture into these new media, not discouraged.  I suspect that their imaginations will prompt them to do so…

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