Art in Paradise: Don't Strike Up the Band
Sometimes it’s clear that writing about something you detest will only bring more attention to it. It’s a maddening paradox.
This time, I’m forging ahead in the fond hope that I can, no matter any extra attention, contribute to the early demise of something so scum-drippingly foul, so hideously malformed and assaultive to the senses it could make H.P. Lovecraft squirm in his adjective-laden grave.
Booktrack “lead investor” Peter Thiel, former Paypal CEO, has teamed up with a who’s who of computing nabobs to give literature a hip new boost. Yes, literature, that musty old character with the coffee breath and the bifocals, is now supposed to trot onto the stage in stillettos and a bustier. This makeover comes courtesy of the addition of—wait for it—a soundtrack that plays along as you read e-books.
It sounds modest at first. But lest you think me merely the crank who opposes the newfangled horseless carriage out of general orneriness, it’s important to note just how this seemingly small “innovation” actually works.
For starters, you set the reading pace, and the soundtrack (which includes music, “ambient sound,” and sound effects) unspools at a speed to match. Check out the video the company has posted, and you can experience this wonder of technology firsthand. It’s like riding a galloping Clydesdale while racing to finish a bowl of jello.
The text scrolls along merrily, which is a problem on its own, unless you read with perfectly consistent pace and understanding. If you’re a fast reader, chances are you have to slow down now and again, back up and reread a sentence or two. No big deal, unless you have a soundtrack that you have to rewind or slow down. That involves screen-tapping to pause the music, then more screen-tapping to start again. Forget, and problems abound. What if there’s a footstep in the sound effects, and you haven’t read to the part of the page where, say, Big Jim finally steps into the cabin to hold aloft the fabled wig of Joan Rivers? If you simply try to go with the unyielding pace, your reading comprehension seems highly likely to suffer—your brain is trying to process more than it can. Booktrack commissioned a 41-adult study that says “clarity, focus and retention of information” are enhanced by their product, but the panic-inducing experience of trying it out offers a stout counterargument.
Even the New York Times‘ explanation of the idea’s genesis reveals a problem at its core: “Mark Cameron& came up with the idea when he was traveling in Hong Kong and tried to read a book and listen to music on his iPod at the same time.”
Sure, people do succeed at listening to music when they read, but it’s almost always music that can be tuned out—low-volume classical, or something ambient and unobtrusive. It’s music that doesn’t take up extra bits of your consciousness. Booktrack has claimed that the addition of its more intrusive music (and sounds!) to your reading experience is a “new genre.” It’s not much of a trick: a musical innovator might well play two pieces of music at the same time and call that a new genre, too. Most of us would have an overwhelming desire to turn one of them off. Likewise, making it stop feels like the overriding concern when you give this accompanied reading a go. And the sample they’ve offered is presumably their best work.
But there are the even bigger problems. Booktrack’s own copy makes an interesting assertion: their soundtracks “dramatically boost the reader’s imagination and engagement.” What that anguished prose seems to be claiming is remarkable: that by doing more of the work that is usually accomplished by a reader’s imagination, they are “boosting” said imagination. I’ve already made similar plans to boost my benchpress number by paying lackeys to lift a portion of the weight.
What’s more likely to be the truth of this bungled use of technology is that, if it’s successful, it will train readers to find mere silent books boring. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but keep in mind that the first release from Booktrack is a young adult novel. If the Booktrack crew finds the world-dominating success it’s no doubt hoping for, kids will come to love accompanied novels, and think of them as a gold standard. What happens when those same kids later get to the terribly mute works of James Joyce, of Nabokov or Calvino? What will they think of those brick-like collections of unaccompanied prose? Will they know what emotions to feel without musical guidance? Will they make it through Portrait of the Artist without Foleyed flames of hell?
Of course, these pioneers of musical books hope to work their magic on the staid classics, too—the New York Times‘ list of planned Booktrack titles includes Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Romeo and Juliet and short stories by Salman Rushdie. Imagine the terrifying possibilities—the works of Jane Austen, as played by Tori Amos. Lolita, as composed by Ke$ha and Justin Bieber. The horrors go on ad infinitum.
To state what should be obvious: you dramatically change a work of literature by coupling it to music. The chances of improving it are pretty slim, unless you’re starting with dreck. You have to figure that the quality of mere “content” is irrelevant to Booktrack, and indeed, the company does not refer to books as art, but as “entertainment.” Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre and Salman Rushdie—mere entertainment, “improved” by a soundtrack.
Maybe it puts me in the crotchety camp. No matter. Booktrack is offering the best way anyone’s yet thought of to make literature worse. Perhaps we can take solace in revisiting some of the pre-release hype for that other game-changer, the Segway scooter. Just as cities were not, in fact, built around Segways, we can only hope that the “new genre” of accompanied e-books crashes with all the grace of an overhyped, out-of-control scooter.