Reading Our Way To Post-Literacy

How odd that in an age of multimedia communications, our increased reliance on video, and the decline of reading altogether, the book is making such a valiant stand on next-gen devices. At just that point in media history when books seem ready to become a quaint relic, they appear to be everywhere. Apple and Amazon are now fighting over the e-book market on their respective devices. More e-readers are popping up in bookstores every day. Borders says it is committed to carrying a full line of devices from a range of manufacturers. And Apple promises that the iBooks store from the iPad will migrate to the iPhone and iPod Touch in the OS 4 upgrade over the next weeks.

Some of the titles in iBooks underscore this effort to use electronics to make reading somehow more fun. There are the very good Dr. Seuss read-aloud books from Oceanhouse Media. Even my teen daughter gets a flashback thrill from playing with these titles.

 Some of the Seuss properties are being ported into games like "Up Fish" and others are just animated, narrated experiences (digital media in loco parentis). "Yeah, but it was more fun when you read them," she says in a bald-faced effort to make the old man feel good. It works, of course, because this old man is a total sucker for that kind of thing. But I recall how this girl also had me completely snowed into believing she was reading earlier than she was. At age two she would be sitting in my lap reciting the books to me as I turned the pages, but in reality she simply had memorized the lines and page turns so well from endless rereadings it just seemed I had a genius on my hands. Dad's fantasy of having a gifted prodigy filled in the rest. "Psych!" she says now.



But the enhanced reading experience is not just for kids. In the Vook series, embedded video clips help advance or dramatize the text actions. In the tricked out "Alice in Wonderland" versions from Atomic Antelope for the iPad, some of the pages become interactive moments where tapping and tilting let you interact with pieces from John Tenniel's original drawings. Cute, but is there something a little regrettable about grown-ups requiring a multimedia enhancement to get some joy from words? I know, I am being old and grumpy again.

The e-books have made the leap finally to game machines. The "100 Classic books" title for the Nintendo DS handheld console arrived last week. This is not nearly as silly as it sounds. The dual-screen DS flips on its side to create a two-page book-like experience. I am sure that Nintendo is targeting the new larger-screen XL version of the DS with this release. When cracked open, the XL has dimensions that approach a small paperback. And the DS is being pitched lately to the same demo that appears to be embracing the Amazon Kindle: young adult women.

Someone at Nintendo is cagey enough to realize that many women embrace casual gaming for the same reason they love reading: therapeutic relaxation. And so the program comes with menu and screen personalization to make the interface more pleasant. My favorite part of the program (and something Apple missed entirely) was those background soundtracks for reading. Everything from trains to beaches to gentle classical music are covered here, to recreate those fantasy occasions of getting away from it all with a good book.

Arguably, the DS reading experience is no worse than the Kindle. Between the two screens there is a fair amount of text on display at any time, although reading even a play like "Macbeth" on your faux beach requires over 400 page swipes. The formatting becomes a confusing hash when there are a lot of quotations and short paragraphs involved. And unlike the iPad, the DS books do not come with original illustrations. You can download more books from a limited online library, all public domain classics. This week's Nelson DeMille bestseller will not be coming to my DS soon, I suspect. 

Whether people really want to read books on smaller screens, or even on a tablet, remains to be seen. I know that publishers are enthused about the prospect of frictionless digital book purchasing. There is something suspicious about the early emphasis on holding entire libraries on a device. This DS title boasts "100 Classic Books," and both Apple and Amazon crow about the sheer number of books their respective devices can hold. Being a bookaholic who himself spends way too much spare time in Borders, I know the mindless tug such appeals can have on you. Ooh, thousands of books all at my fingertips. Well, I have seven or eight books on my iPad already and haven't read more than a chapter in any of them. Having access to thousands of books at once is not especially useful unless the one you really want to read is among them.

But I suspect there is going to be some kind of cultural pushback from the digitization of reading. As much as I appreciate having my Esquire, Vanity Fair and "Alice in Wonderland" on the iPhone, iPad and DS respectively, they are multimedia and plugged-in experiences so long as they are on a connected platform. Even if the reading experience is kept pristine in the e-reader, there will always be the multitasking temptation to pop out for a second and check headlines or e-mail. Which is fine. Most of us work this way most times of the day.

But that is exactly why I think analog magazines and books (if not necessarily newspapers) will play an important role in the full media experience well into the future. We may actually covet analog print, which I think will come to represent the unplugged moments we will increasingly crave. Analog will survive, albeit in a contracted form, precisely because digital media has triumphed. 

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