As books go beyond printed page to multisensory experience, what about reading?

ENRICHING OR DISTRACTING? Readers of Vooks can check out hyperlinks and videos embedded in the online tales, making for a quite different reading experience.
ENRICHING OR DISTRACTING? Readers of Vooks can check out hyperlinks and videos embedded in the online tales, making for a quite different reading experience. (Andrew Bannecker for The Washington Post)
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By Monica Hesse
Monday, December 28, 2009

The mysterious man looks completely wrong to me.

In the text of conspiracy thriller "Embassy," an online novel by Richard Doetsch, the character is described as "a starkly thin fellow with a protruding Adam's apple." My brain goes: Alan Rickman!

But when I click on the chapter's accompanying video, the man is younger, tanner, scruffier. He's dressed like he should be bumming clove cigarettes at a concert, not spying on the Greek Embassy.

What I'm reading is a Vook -- a video/book hybrid produced in part by Simon & Schuster's Atria Books. Interspersed throughout the text are videos and links that supplement the narrative. In one chapter, the Greek ambassador receives a mysterious DVD, and readers must click on an embedded video to learn what's on it. In another, kidnapper Jack ominously tells his hostage that he's going to prove that he means business.

"How are you going to do that?" Kate asks.

"Are you squeamish?" Jack replies.

Below that dialogue, a little box encourages readers to "SEE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT" by clicking the play button.

(What happened next, in a comically foreboding scene: Jack grabbed Kate's hand and threatened to chop off her fingers with a kitchen knife.)

It's a dizzying experience, reading Vooks. But they represent just a few examples of a new genre that has been alternatively dubbed v-books, digi-books, multimedia books and Cydecks, all with essentially the same concept: It's a book . . . but wait, there's more!

There will certainly be more of them. The first six books of text/Web hybrid "The 39 Clues" have nearly 5 million copies in print, and nearly 700,000 registered users for the site. A seventh book will be released in February. "The Amanda Project," released this fall, is set to be an eight-book series. Brad Inman, founder of Vook, said that his company will release as many as 200 titles next year -- a goal made more feasible by the relative cheapness of producing his online-only books. "It's very inexpensive in scale. We're talking thousands of dollars, not even tens of thousands of dollars" for each project.

Is a hybrid book our future? Maybe. "As discourse moves from printed pages to network screens, the dominant mode will be things that are multi-modal and multilayered," says Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book. "The age of pure linear content is going to pass with the rise of digital network content."

Predicting the eventual death of the traditional novel sounds practically heretical. But keep in mind that the genre has actually existed in English for only about 300 years, and that experimentation and evolution have always been a part of the way we tell stories.

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