It's a video-book hybrid that melds narrative with videos and Web links, to be read online or on a mobile device. Journalist Monica Hesse points to the "bells and whistles" of these multimedia books, from Wikipedia links explaining old-fashioned references to video clips of historians' input, and asks the essential question: "Would these [features] represent the sort of enhanced involvement that book lovers have always dreamed of? Or would they tamper with our imaginations?"
My answer to her first question: no. And her second: of course.
These products are packages, like shrink-wrapped plastic toys. You can't get inside them, although they promise to do just that: lead you deep into the book's world with 3-D glasses, making your experience visual and aural. But such interference destroys the very magic of reading. In a previous post, I wrote about the unique images readers hold for poignant literary moments, like Dantès' escape in The Count of Monte Cristo, and the soldiers' torture of the water buffalo in The Things They Carried. The Vook medium renders each image exactly the same for each reader. How boring.
Hesse apparently agrees:
"The pleasure of reading has always been its uniquely transporting experience: the way a literary world might look completely different to two readers. But when the “true” representation... is immediately provided to the reader, imaginary worlds could be squelched before they can be born."
This kind of reading, aside from fraying the nerve endings responsible for dreaming our way through a story, also makes us lazy. Evan Maloney maligns speed-reading in The Guardian's Books Blog, asserting that skimming "reminds [him] of liposuction: you're putting on intellectual weight without acquiring the mental health benefits". Whether flipping hastily through a great work, or in using a Vook bypassing the contemplative act of real reading, this nonchalance with regard to the narrative text is just empty.
The type of reading required by a Vook also dulls our brains. Reading should be active. Your brain should be working on full speed to navigate its way through unfamiliar territory. In a Christian Science Monitor article on the potential mental hazard of reading eBooks, Tufts child development professor Maryanne Wolf writes, "My concern is that we will develop within the next generation a shorter, less-enriched [brain] circuitry for reading." My point exactly. A Vook force-feeds you. In fact, I would argue that engaging in a Vook is not reading at all.
Now, the catch is that if you treat Vooks not as true books, but as "a new genre that has been dubbed v-books, digi-books, multimedia books and Cydecks," as Hesse writes, I think there can be advantages like attracting book-averse children (or certain filmmakers; Martin Scorsese: "I really enjoy reading the papers, as best as I can, but turning those pages are a problem"), and stitching edification into the thread of a piece of writing. Literature they are not. Books they are not. But inventive products trying to adapt writing to new media? Sure.
Some Vooks aren't masquerading as literature at all, and therefore I think do offer a beneficially multi-layered reading experience. Motoko Rich reviews some for the New York Times:
"In one of the Simon & Schuster vooks, a fitness and diet title, readers can click on videos that show them how to perform the exercises. A beauty book contains videos that demonstrate how to make homemade skin-care potions."
Again, I ask, as I did in that earlier post: Which art form, words or images, is more richly communicative? Is there dilution when we mix the two?
And, again, I answer... there is no answer. But both images and words today, as always, help us to think and connect and create- whatever the form they make take.