Classic Novels: Press Start to Play

Since I shot my first pixelated duck when I was five, I’ve always been a bit nuts about video games. This explains why the Dante’s Inferno game vexes me both for being literary blasphemy and a shameless clone of God of War. Equally, if you can believe that. And because I have this other pastime, this tidbit caught my eye:

Nintendo’s DS will soon function as an eReader. The 100 Classic Book Collection, which you purchase like any game for the peripheral, is a library of works from Austen to Dickens to Conrad. You turn the DS sideways and read the text on the dual screens, like you would a regular book (did I really just say that?)

So if it’s basically a game, who’s to stop Nintendo from imbuing the packaged books with some other conventions? Like

  • You must first complete The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in order to unlock Huck Finn. (Unless you enter a cheat code at the title screen)
  • Each book has an adjustable difficulty level. For example, Hamlet on Hard: “Unhand me gentlemen./ By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!” Hamlet on Easy: “Let me go or I’ll kill you guys.”
  • Time Attack Leaderboards are posted weekly on whomever finishes Ivanhoe the quickest.

Books on a gaming system. To many it seems like Nintendo, so often accused of draining our culture’s literacy, is making a noble gesture of… reparation, to use an extreme term. But I don’t think it’ll pan out that way.

You see, when my PS3 is in the room with my books, the PS3 wins. A lot. I’ve not been a very disciplined reader unless grades, money, or other incentives were involved, and nearby distractions have added to my troubles. I’ve accepted this as a reality of my habits and have taken measures to isolate myself from that instant dopamine machine.

And Nintendo would have books competing with video games right there on the handheld? That screws with someone like me. When Pimp Quest was on my graphing calculator back when I was in high school, I shot way more cops on my TI-83 than I drew parabolas. And that was games vs. mathematics–no freakin’ contest.

Incorporating books on multi-tasking devices like the iPad makes them more accessible in day-to-day life, and that counts for something, but will people necessarily read more because of that accessibility? I’m worried that ebooks might get buried in the digital toybox of distractions, nudged somewhere between Bejeweled and the app that allows you to flick open a virtual Zippo lighter.

My question is, would literacy fare better if reading is mostly kept as a separate function, as it remains on the Nook or Kindle or heaven forbid an actual paperback? That won’t happen–there’s no stopping the absorption of books into the electro-smorgasbord–but we’re talking in theory.

I would draw out a well-reasoned answer to this question, but I really need to go play Dragon Age right now.

7 thoughts on “Classic Novels: Press Start to Play

  1. Pingback: DS Breaking into eReaders? « Little Girl With a Big Pen

  2. Is this post supposed to be the angry rantings of a Luddite? j/k

    Don’t worry I kid. I understand your perspective, but as I see it, if kids aren’t reading it from a computer they’re probably not reading it at all. I wouldn’t worry about whether people will still desire the tactile pleasure of thumbing through an actual a book vs. tapping on a directional pad. If anything, people are reading more now than they ever did before.

    Granted it isn’t Yates or Hughes and it’s more likely Perez Hilton or TMZ, but even when those books were written only a certain class of people were first able to read them and second actually cared to…High art as always been held in the esteem of the elite. Otherwise it wouldn’t be high-art, now would it?

    The world has always been full of people who rather choose Pac-man to Pygmalion. I think it’s just more obvious now, because the digital revolution has brought us much closer. Still, at the same token public domain archives such as Project Gutenberg allow greater access to an assortment of classic literature from all over globe. Quite frankly this DS thing is essentially making players pay for what’s already free, ha!

    I can certainly concur (I love that word) it does feel like all forms of media are beginning to collapse upon each other like trinkets in a Swiss Army knife, epecially with the advent of ultra portable devices (i.e. iPad, Archos, Joojoo tablet).

    But I probably feel so because I’m simply a “fuddy duddy”

    Thanks for this post it was an interesting read.

    -Ed Wilson

  3. I’ve been trying for several days to come up with an “up-down-up-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-b-a-start” joke, and mostly what I did was wear out my interest.

    I’m not against the various platforms of e-readers out there. The Victorians that I read almost exclusively are a wordy bunch; it can be wearying on my old bones to hold 700+ pages. I am against the idea that I don’t own the book I’ve purchased; that I’ve only leased the license for a vague period of time. Until that issue of ownership is cleared up, I’ll remain Captain Carpal Tunnel.

  4. @Ed: I see your point on accessibility: we are essentially removing steps between someone’s thought of “I’d like to read that,” and their actually reading a book. That’s a great thing no matter how you slice it.

    With this eReader business, some people make it sound like it’s raining frogs and comets. While I’m not of that mind, I do find the changes in reading will be colossal if not very tough to predict (The discussion of how digital books will affect the different classes, too, is an interesting one).

    @Mike: I had no idea what the Konami Code would do, myself, besides maybe give Allan Quatermain 30 lives and the Spreader gun.

    I thought I should tell you this: a friend of mine owns a Nook and is relishing the free classics–so much so that when I warned him away from Two on a Tower (he’s the kind of Hardy completist you were talking about), he downloaded it anyway. Perhaps this is one case where accessibility is bad thing…

  5. You can only do so much, and then you have to let people make the mistakes that they’re going to make. He’ll probably love it, and you’ll start to doubt me as that Mysterious Internet Stranger Who Reads Nineteenth Century Literature (Poorly, I Might Add).

    Have you read anything by Charles Reade? He’s a Victorian, mining the same vein as Hardy, but with less dourness and a little more humor. (Not that misspelled suicide notes from children are dour and aren’t funny.)

  6. [returning from Wikipedia] Charles Reade is a new name to me. I have to admit that I probably haven’t read any Victorians at that level of present obscurity (becos they are to meny). If and when I do check him out, should I start with The Cloister and the Hearth necessarily?

    And don’t worry — your credibility’s in no danger should The Completist rave about Two on a Tower, which he may. He doesn’t seem to be the masochistic sort of completist, and will enjoy any Hardy regardless of quality. Which is fine; I think we should all find something like that in our lives.

  7. Don’t start with The Cloister and the Hearth necessarily, unless it’s the only Reade you have access to (and if you’re keen on historical fiction; and if you are, then have you read Wolf Hall yet? It’s my favorite book of 2009 written in 2009).

    I’m partial to Griffith Gaunt because of Reade’s frank portrayal of a bitter marriage that ends divorce. You can skip GG and just read these letters Reade wrote, trying to defend his artistic vision: The Prurient Prude.

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