Saturday, 30 April 2011

Old Book, New Cover

There is a book in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial. A really huge book. In its pages is the abridged story of how Tunku and gang won our independence from the British.

The pages, however, are not real. In all likelihood it is a Flash interface, projected on the static surface of a book-like construct that relies on motion-detecting sensors to let visitors interact with it. The interface takes some time to master. I should know - I played with it. Besides text and pictures, it also contains playable video clips.

Did I have a brush with an e-book - or a version of the e-book - during my trip through time back then?

As the debate over the future of paper-based publishing and the advent of e-book technology swirls, some are hauling out the next e-book concept. Not just electronic books, but "enhanced" electronic books. Things that look and feel like the one in Tunku's Memorial.

What would an enhanced e-book of The Lord of the Rings look like, for instance? It might, for starters, have video clips for epic scenes: Helm's Deep, Gollum's (and Sauron's) End, and Frodo's departure. Audio clips of how those names or words in Sindarin are pronounced. Interactive images of Anduril, the One Ring, or Bilbo Baggin's home, Bag End.

You know what? That fits the description of such an enhanced e-book mentioned in an online CNN article. Consider the plans for an e-book for The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader:'s also cresting a wave of enhanced electronic books as one of the most high-profile literary works to take advantage of the new abilities of readers such as Apple's iPad and other tablet computers.

Released by HarperCollins and available this week for several tablets and smartphones, "Dawn Treader" will include features such as embedded video, read-along audio clips, trivia games and full-color images.

It also includes a map of the fantasy land of Narnia (a feature creators say was one of the most requested by fans), a blueprint of the magical sailing ship the "Dawn Treader" and a guide to the creatures and people in the book.

Or, in the words of HarperCollins, it "targets multiple senses to create an innovative and exciting way to experience Narnia on e-reading technology."

In the same article was news about Simon & Schuster's "first enhanced e-book", Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland," for the iPad, which includes an interview with the author and historic video clips from CBS News.

...So an "enhanced e-book" is something I can view online, like, a web site? An "interactive" web site? Or something I can find in a paper book, like, an "interactive" CD-ROM, DVD or Blu-Ray disc?

Amazing, isn't it, what some "new" things are actually old.

Another e-book program is the Libroid, which:

...currently runs only on Apple's iPad tablet computer, splits the traditional book page into three columns, allowing authors space to annotate their text with footnotes, images, maps, videos and web links.

...Page numbers are abandoned in favor of a percentage bar that tells readers where they are.

Interactive elements allow readers to make their own comments on virtual book clubs that can be linked up to the text. It also offers authors the possibility of updating their own work (something that U.S. author Jonathan Franzen might appreciate after the wrong draft of his latest novel was published in the UK).

That sounds a bit more useful than the other "enhanced e-book". But I'm not comparing apples with cantaloupes here.

One allure of the book - any book, perhaps - is how it allows the reader's allusions a bit more reign. When we read about people, places, events, the scenes unfurl in our heads, almost like a movie. Pictures and sounds may fill the gaps in the imagination but once that's done with, is there any point in reading a book anymore?

Is there a point to the book anymore?

The "e-book" is something that may have emerged a long time ago - when the web site was invented. Vanity home page sites of old such as Geocities (RIP) and today's blogging platforms are already letting us publish online, even if blogs don't "look like" books. So who are they to tell us what a book is and should be?

Novelties such as the advertised add-ons of the "enhanced" e-book may be welcomed by certain people. There's definitely a need for interactivity in academia and education, particularly in history, the sciences, the arts, and medicine, for instance. Just don't sell them "enhanced e-books", "augmented e-books", or whatever. 

But the way things are going, the next steps in the evolution of the e-book will see it resemble handheld interactive TVs. Or PCs. Nothing "new" or "enhanced" about that.


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