Multimedia Does Not A Book Make

The release today of the stunning Alice for iPad video on YouTube (above) has made me wonder, yet again, whether these ‘enhanced’ ebooks that are beginning to pop up (mostly on the iPhone’s App Store) are anything other than a gimmick. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, an enhanced ebook is an ebook with bells and whistles. They range from the no frills, DVD extras kind of thing – perhaps a written interview with the author, at best – to the sort of multimedia extravaganza that was put together for the release of The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. This iPhone enhanced ebook contains the full audiobook (read by Nick Cave) with backing music composed by the author (helpful that in this case the author is a musician), interspersed with video of the author in all his moustachioed glory.

For a long while, I’ve held the view that enhanced ebooks done properly (like Bunny Munro) are for people who don’t really like reading – and, in fact, aren’t even really books – and when done badly (I won’t name names), are just an excuse to charge $25 for something that is only worth $12. But I have changed my mind (at least about the former).

The new Bunny cover. Now with              less conspicuous female genitalia.

The argument is that by sticking audio or video into a book, it stops being a book (some would argue that this makes it a vook – those people are ridiculous; there is no such thing as a vook). Rather than ponder the metaphysical question of what really makes a book (I fear the answer may be full of smell-of-books style nostalgic silliness), I think it’s more worthwhile to think about how we – and by ‘we’, I mean me – consume books.

Nowadays, the way I read a book – ebook or not – is often peppered with mental interruptions, whether it’s wondering what a word means, questioning what the author is referring to or just following a trail of logic to its illogical conclusion. For me a book is not just the words on the page, but a series of associations I have made along the way. I’m not sure if this is a product of the internet age – where in order to understand what’s happening on Lost it’s necessary to have your laptop open and twelve tabs open in Google Chrome and be constantly flicking between each one before your attention runs out – but this is genuinely how I like reading. I suspect I’m not alone*.

The traditional paper book is, perhaps, the last great bastion of undivided attention and pure concentration. And that is lovely, for those times that you have great swathes of time and attention to spare. But the daily lives of many people sometimes don’t allow for that kind of reading experience. Should that mean that books get left behind other kinds of easy-to-consume media? I don’t think so. When I get off the train and want to keep reading, why not have Nick Cave continue reading me the story? And when the full brain freeze of reading is just too much for me, why shouldn’t I be able to check the news and reviews on an author simultaneously?

What do you think? Have you ever tried an enhanced ebook? Would you? How many books do you read a year? Do you think you might read more if they were a bit more accessible?

*Yes, I’m talking about you. You know who you are. You’re the one who looks up the name of every movie mentioned in a casual conversation on IMDB on your iPhone.