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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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The pleasure of reading has always been its uniquely transporting experience: the way a literary world might look completely different to two readers. One might picture the fictional heroine as a Natalie Portman type; the other might see her as Freida Pinto.

But when the "true" representation -- like clove cigarette guy -- is immediately provided to the reader, imaginary worlds could be squelched before they have a chance to be born. Reading Vooks made me feel a little like a creative slacker. Maybe there was no point in imagining what someone or something looked like, if I was going to be helped along anyway.

David Sousa is a consultant in educational neuroscience and author of "How the Brain Learns to Read." In his classroom research, he says, "we find that kids are not able to do imagining and imaging as exercises" as well as they once did, "because video's doing the work for them. . . . They still have the mental apparatus for that, the problem is they're not getting the exercise."

Reading has traditionally been one of imagination's personal trainers, and while skipping from medium to medium might provide other benefits (catering to a variety of learning styles rather than just the visual reader's), it might adversely affect the way we create our own worlds.

Of course, some hybrid books' companion activities seem designed to exercise creativity. Readers of "The Amanda Project," for example, are encouraged to contribute to the site's catalogue of reader-submitted stories in a sort of organized fan fiction compendium. Madison, the 14-year-old, says that though she's never been what you would call a bookworm, the multimedia aspects of her uncle's books have made her more willing to read other things.

And Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book says that whatever assumptions we might make now about hybrid books, there's a good chance they won't hold true when the medium grows up. "Things like the Vook are trivial. We're going to see an explosion of experimentation before we see a dominant new format. We're at the very beginning stages" of figuring out what narrative might look like in the future. "The very, very beginning."


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