TheGuardian: 16th April 2012
Can Booktrack make ebooks sensuous?
We sometimes forget it, but reading a book in the old-fashioned way (holding an object made of different thicknesses of paper, most of which are covered in words) is a peculiar kind of composite experience. Never mind what happens in our heads and hearts and senses and nerves. The thing itself speaks. Pages rustle. They smell – sometimes delicious, sometimes of disconcertingly previous owners. Spines creak. And so on. Compared to such an immersion in small sensory events, the digitally downloaded text can seem antiseptic, even emasculated. Convenient it may be; sensuous it ain't.
Not until now, anyway. In America last year, a group of investors that included Peter Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of PayPal, launched Booktrack, which describes itself as a "revolutionary new technology [that] dramatically enhances e-reading experience". How? By creating a synchronised soundtrack for ebooks that automatically matches a pre-recorded stream of music, sound effects, and other kinds of ambient noise to the reader's consumption of words. A character knocks on the door: bang-bang-bang. Another puts a slice of bacon in the frying pan: sssssss. Someone kisses someone: well, no, perhaps not. And in between all these bursts of activity: sympathetic music, or weather-noises, or (if it's a scene outdoors) a bird singing at the end of the garden.
The American launch was centred on Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Speckled Band. Predictably enough, it had some vocal critics – people who felt distracted, interrupted, closed down by the literal manifestation of things they would rather be left to imagine. But it had a lot of fans too. In its first 10 weeks on sale, The Speckled Band was downloaded more than 100,000 times through the Apple iTunes app store. It has since been downloaded in 99 different countries, reached the top 10 iPhone books apps in 20 of them, and become a top 100 book app in 11. "Bells and Whistles for ebooks," said the New York Times. "Phenomenal," said the Week. "Revolutionary," said the Huffington Post; "books without soundtracks could some day seem as quaint as silent movies".
But what will the UK say? It's easy to imagine some old-style sniffing about American vulgarity, or obviousness, or unintended comic value – and the Booktrack people had better steel themselves for a bit of that. But they have powerful counter-arguments, as I've been able to see because they've chosen my recently published novel Silver: Return to Treasure Island as their UK launch title. For one thing the technology is just very entertaining (how on earth does the page know where your eyes have got to, and therefore when to do the knocking on the door etc). For another, it really does create an "immersive world". I wrote the book, so I might well say that mightn't I. But still. It seems to me likely that for every reader who feels their own powers of imagination have been curtailed or pre-empted, there will be another who is grateful for some encouragement and extra fun – in much the same way that we are grateful for these things when listening to a radio play.
Which is the ace in Booktrack's hand. They commissioned Liel Leibovitz, a professor of communications at New York University, to investigate "the cognitive advantages, if any, to reading accompanied by audio elements", and the prof came up with some pretty interesting results. In particular, the research suggested that when readers tackled books with a soundtrack, they not only found them easier to follow than "silent" books, but also found them easier to remember.
The summary of this research provided by Booktrack tells us that the subjects tested in the study all resided in the New York metropolitan area, and represented varied levels of income and education – which doesn't say about their backgrounds, ages, reading experience etc. But it seems reasonable to assume they were people who don't spend every day of their lives chained to the library desk. Which might in turn mean that the greatest benefit of the new technology will be to help improve literacy rates – and probably help schoolchildren reading for assessment, as well. If it does, all power to it.
At the same time, the success of Booktrack so far also says something interesting about the appetites of people for whom reading is not "an issue", still less a problem. For while we think of ourselves as an increasingly visualised culture (on phones, in games, on video) we might also reflect on our hunger to live in the acoustic world. The audience figures for the Poetry Archive (250,000-odd unique visitors every month) prove what a good friend new technologies have been to poetry. Maybe Booktrack will riff on a similar theme. Amid all the complaints that computers cut us off from reality, there is room to argue that in many surprising ways they are reminding us how much we rely on our senses.