The current crop of enhanced e-books falls sadly short of the medium’s spectacular capabilities. Mostly they provide extras: Interviews, author readings, the audiobook, maybe a game. Like bonus material on a DVD, but without deleted scenes, boooo! Some of it is useful: Timelines, maps, etc. But there’s very little that enhances a reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the text itself. More importantly, there’s no model, modular approach to bringing such enhancements to the text.
Certainly some books have taken creative advantage of the medium. Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality springs to mind. But most efforts have been primitive, gimmicky, or misdirected. One “cutting-edge” approach is indistinguishable from the “choose-your-own-adventure” books of the 70s & 80s, apart from the reader not having to turn actual pages to get to the chosen part. Readers made it plain then that they want the writer to choose the adventure. If I can choose it myself, then the events that lead up to the end are, by definition, arbitrary. I certainly don’t feel I’ve paid to be in the hands of a good storyteller.
Other approaches are faring similarly. Most readers don’t care how many other readers have highlighted a particular passage. Most don’t want to interrupt their literary immersion to chat about a scene they’re in the middle of. Most are quickly bored with watching a graphic move.
The resounding verdict is that what readers like to do is read, and distracting and superfluous add-ons are mostly unwelcome. (I except the value of such enhancements in children’s books.) Book enhancements need to be inimical. They need to bring something to the text beyond the appearance of a desperate need to keep a reader’s attention. This won’t surprise enthusiastic readers, and it’s a shame that it is surprising publishers.
I would like the option to release (and read) novels as wikis. I’m interested in the opportunity to create what are essentially linked, flexible, self-updating, multimedia versions of annotated books. I’d like a layered approach of well-integrated functions that can show me the real-world settings of fictional events; explain technical or historical references; provide definitions; discuss allusions in, or influences on, the text; give biographical information that provides insight into an author’s choices and themes; play a referenced song. I would like a platform that can provide this for any book I read (so long as there are readers willing to contribute material). And I’d like it even better if this platform was open source.
These abilities would let a book live and breathe beyond its pages, without interfering with the immersive, methodical, linear, and private process that is reading.
The first time through I might not use any of these options. But on re-reading, the chance to have more than my prior exposure informing the novel is very exciting to me. There are many authors whose density, allusion, humor, historical immersion, complexity, and even obscurity would be made more accessible through the application of such layers, without affecting a comma’s worth of their prose, or my enjoyment of it. I think of how much more juice might be squeezed out of Homer, Dante, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Samuel R. Delany, Cormac McCarthy, Umberto Eco, David Foster Wallace. Doubtless you have your own list.
I have every confidence that this is where e-books will head. Until then, third-party approaches seem to be a good stopgap. I’m talking about websites that act as “read-alongs,” book-specific wikis with user-provided explanations, definitions, associations, maps, media, etc. I am surprised that I have found so few.
Book Drum is a good one, I think. They have a nice selection of user-provided book “profiles,” from Milan Kundera to Homer to (ahem) V.C. Andrews. To create or edit a profile you have to sign up, but the book profiles themselves are accessible to anyone. The quality of the entries is uneven, but that’s the nature of the beast. I found the profile of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing to be startlingly well-researched and illuminating, and I was quite grateful for the work that contributor Gordon Knox put into it. I’ve read that novel five or six times, yet here was a trove of insight and information for me.
I like to think that someone will get form & function right enough that one such site will become the go-to location for — oh, let’s call it metabooking. Heck, if such a site were successful enough — the Facebook of metabooking — maybe it could be ported as a free addon to your ebook purchase. Maybe your Kindle would give you the option of implementing it.