Learning to Embrace Enhanced EBooks

Apr 17, 2012

On a cool night in March, some friends and I celebrated the coming of spring with a round of raspberry cordials and white wine. Providing music for this small kitchen gathering was an iPhone propped against an empty teacup and cranked to full volume.

We were all "early eighties babies." We grew up in the twilight moments of cassette culture, the kids who copied treasured albums using double-deck cassette players. I had used an electric typewriter for elementary school book reports before discovering the mysterious powers of IBM. The Internet struck me as an absurd form of magic that allowed human beings to be in multiple places at once -the key to omnipresence. During middle school, I fell into a brief and disappointing fling with MiniDiscs before fully phasing into CDs, and even then I would still listen to the collection of LPs I inherited from my older brother. 

As a demographic cohort we would be considered part of the "Net Generation." We are sometimes "Millennials" and other times "Digital Natives." Despite differences between the generational clusters that comprise the larger group, our collective existence has taken on a techno-cultural patina. We live in a cycle of "upgrades." For us, technology has reached the speed of fashion. It is fashion.

Now, the digital world is laying claim to the hallowed grounds of literature. We have the option to upgrade our books.

As an old school bibliophile, my initial reaction to the e-reader boom was to play the dogged naysayer. And yet, simultaneously, I began to recollect my journey through music technology: "What about the sensory enjoyments of literature?" I wondered. Like many others, I relish the feel of paper against my fingertips and the scent of a new novel. (But how long has it been since I even touched a vinyl LP or heard the click of a cassette?) Why trade paper for yet another screen in my life? (I love my iPod). What about the aesthetic satisfaction of possessing a personal library? (All my CDs, which had been arranged on a dedicated shelf, now live in a shoebox...underneath my bed).

There is something to be said about digital convenience. Perhaps if I possessed an e-reader as a child I wouldn't have developed the mild scoliosis that makes my back ache as an adult. E-readers are pleasantly portable. If I am ever disappointed by a book, its physical presence never has to haunt me. I admit that I would be more inclined to experiment with different literature if presented with the choices digitally. Why? Because if I want to switch to something more to my taste, the book will appear before my eyes with only a single toggle, sweep, or push. Technology encourages its users to be pragmatic about space, to desire compact efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Perhaps ebooks are slowly taking the place of paperbacks in my life.

At the same time, I highly doubt that I will abandon print entirely - but this is because I grew up on books. I make no promises about a baby who learns how to use an iPad right after its first steps.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey on the rise of e-reading and published its results on April 4, attesting to an attractive shift in reading culture:

"Those who have taken the plunge into reading ebooks stand out in almost every way from other kinds of readers. Foremost, they are relatively avid readers of books in all formats: 88% of those who read ebooks in the past 12 months also read printed books. Compared with other book readers, they read more books. They read more frequently for a host of reasons: for pleasure, for research, for current events, and for work or school. They are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in general, often starting their search online."

There is also something to be said for - please excuse the pun - novelty.

The upgrade in reading technology has given rise to enhanced ebooks, many of which reflect the way we interact with technology on a day-to-day basis. If the quotidian is the stuff of stories, then multimedia certainly has its place in capturing modern day relationships, interactions, habits, and rituals. iPods already give us a soundtrack to our lives. Why not give a soundtrack to our books?

An article from the Economist entitled "Enhanced ebooks: Truly moving literature" brings a number of these works into focus.

"Penguin's new release, Chopsticks, a young-adult love story, uses digital scrapbooking and bits of text interspersed with music tracks and YouTube clips. Open Road's Gift, due out in March, is a ghost story told with audio tracks and music videos, as well as a graphic novel with sound and visual effects."

That these enhanced ebooks are being geared towards the YA audience comes as no surprise. The move to multimedia literature will be seamless for them. They are the ones who were truly born digital.