Years ago, books were just words on a page. Now, the wonders of technology allow us to add audio – narration, dramatic interpretation and background noises – and high quality colour images to books of all types and genres, aimed at audiences of all ages. But is an enhanced book always the best option?
Digital technology tempts us to add bells and whistles to a book just for the sake of it. In certain cases, in-story games and activities can blur the clarity of the narrative for younger readers.
There’s a temptation to add bells and whistles just for the sake of it, rather than wondering what added benefit there is for the reader. If you include a game in the middle of a children’s story, for example, does it actually serve a purpose? Does it help the child’s understanding, or does it become a distraction that interrupts the narrative thread? Good books help young children learn; their structure is frequently a subliminal lesson that depends on cause and effect or unfolding events leading to logical consequences and outcomes. A dramatic reading may help younger children follow the plot, but an in-story game or activity may blur the clarity of the narrative, meaning that the child does not find the lesson so easy to assimilate.
As we said, though, enhancements can be included in books for any readers. And older children and adults are more likely to know when they want to read straight on and when it’s appropriate to dally, which means that there is a strong argument for looking at what extra features will add value to the sort of books that we referred to right at the start: traditional text-on-a-page books.
Many classics are printed with long text introductions that give cultural, geographical and historical background, and pages of footnotes that explain specific details; but imagine reading a historical novel where you can access images of the different types of carriage or the styles of frocks without losing your place and finally understand precisely why a day dress would be inappropriate for an evening event and how tricky it would be for a lady to step into a high-perch phaeton. In a fantasy epic, you could follow the hero’s itinerary on an interactive pop-up map or check the floor plans as you read a murder-mystery.
There are other audio and video features that can add a dimension to the reading experience: hearing the poet read their own work may help explain why they chose those unexpected line and stanza breaks. Or you might have a video interview with an author where they talk about how a specific book fits into a bigger picture of their work.
Chambers dictionary defines the word enhance as “to improve or increase the value, quality or intensity of something”. It doesn’t mean to make something unnecessarily complex and distracting. Perhaps we should be looking more closely at whether enhanced ebooks are living up to their name.