I recoil at this like I do most innovations that seek to improve “the reading experience.” The nose upturns by reflex: I don’t need an orchestral score to enjoy my books, thank you very much.
But the presumption isn’t that it’s needed, but that it might make some books a little more fun.
Booktrack is a New York start-up that’s begun selling downloadable ebooks with original soundtracks complete with music, ambient noise, and contextual sound effects. You figured somebody was going to do this eventually, and the question was how good it would be once they did.
To its credit, Booktrack seems to acknowledge that readers are fussy. Maybe you like the ambient ocean waves but find the music distracting: lower the volume on the music or simply mute it. If you want to reread a previous line, you tap it, and the soundtrack snaps back to that point.
Watching the preview on their web site, I think Booktrack has anticipated all my misgivings on the very concept. Almost every addition you could possibly dislike, you can adjust or turn off — even the little dot sliding down the margin that predicts your adjusted reading speed (in order to sync up the music).
The interface looks good. The only question is, well, the quality of the soundtrack.
On the Sherlock Holmes preview, the swelling music and the ambient drumming raindrops were fine, but the sound effects, like the thudding footsteps and the lady’s wail, are in Royalty-Free Soundz territory. Just think of all the Wilhelm Screams these things will have.
Another preview showed an excerpt of Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City describing an 80’s club scene, wherein the line, “Your brain is composed of a brigade of Bolivian soldiers marching through the night,” is accompanied by the actual clomping of marching soldiers (this with Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” in the background).
Are the sounds all going to be this literal? Awesome! Then maybe the Booktrack rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” will begin like this:
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain [door creaking open, then shutting]; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night [“Oooooo! Ooo-OOO-oooo!”]. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man [a big wet SMOOCH]. He had never done me wrong.
(This with Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in the background)
So they’re working the teen angle, what with the one new book at launch being the sequel to I Am Number Four, The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore (a.k.a. James Frey).
It’s the right target market: first, this technology would seem especially appealing to younger readers, and second, the fastest and cheapest way to build Booktrack’s library would be through focusing not on new books, but rather public domains like Pride and Prejudice and Huck Finn — classics that happen to be on the assigned reading lists of millions of students.
If the execution’s there, I can imagine Booktracks becoming an influential player in publishing, maybe even spawning imitators. But if the quality’s off, then reading one of these noisy books will just be embarrassing. It remains to be seen, I suppose.
Until then, what best enhances my reading experience is, and will continue to be, a quiet porch and a rum and coke. And Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.'”