I was talking to someone at work a few days ago about e-books. Being engineers, the topic quickly came round to all the whiz-bang applications that will eventually (if not already) be added to “enhance” the reading experience. Already there’s talk about author interviews being inserted, and animations. How long until we get sound-effects – or electronically generated smells – or maybe even an e-reader that vibrates or shakes in our hands as we approach some epic moment of action?
I have to say, I find the whole thought disturbing. To me, there’s a gulf of difference between the reading experience and the sensory stimulation provided by movies or other forms of audio-visual entertainment. A movie or television program entertains you by jumping up and down in front of you, waving its hands frantically while setting off firecrackers at every point of the compass. Actors strut their stuff, veritably oozing charisma, while music makes your heart pound, sound effects make your teeth shake, and special effects leave you wondering how on earth they could possibly have done that. It’s spectacular, it’s visual, and it’s in your face.
A book, on the other hand, is nothing but little inky splodges on off-white paper. It may have coffee stains on it. It may (like way too many of my books) have red-wine marks on several pages. It may have that dusty, old smell that forces you to try hard not to think about what sort of cultures are growing between the pages, and makes you rush off and wash your hands after every read. But if the author has done his or her job, none of that matters. It’s the words that draw you in. A book seduces you. It calls you by name, and leads you by the hand to a world of wonders, until you forget where you are and are drawn happily into a place that exists just for you – made in the way you, and you alone, choose to dream it.
I don’t need an e-reader with sound effects. If Stephen King or Lee Child or Ursula LeGuin describe to me how something sounds, I’ll hear it more clearly than any speaker could possibly pipe into my ears. I don’t need emotive music. If Tolkien describes the orcs massing, or Rowling a Quidditch match in full swing, I’ll be drawn more deeply than any orchestra could hope to achieve.
That’s the beauty of words. Used properly, they’re more powerful than anything visual, anything aural, or anything that can be dreamed up by some software engineer in a blue coat. I really hope that in the midst of this digital revolution people don’t lose sight of that and, in a well meaning but ill-informed attempt to make the reading experience better, end up ruining it completely.
That would be a tragedy of blockbuster proportions.