Booktrack: I Can Hear You Reading Over There

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.'”

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I Should Probably Start Reading All the Books I’ve Borrowed From Friends

I’ve always said that when someone personally recommends a book to you, it’s like they’ve just assigned you homework (Granted, I am guilty of this and will not stop). This isn’t so much the case with blogs as it is with personal interactions–because in that case they can hand you the book. I need it back in two weeks and with a 500-word essay on its themes of isolation and redemption.

Three, maybe four of these such “assigned” books are in my custody that I’ve yet to read. In talking to these friends, the topic of the borrowed books hasn’t been broached since. Does he know I’ve still got his Starship Troopers? It’s been two years. At that point the public library typically stops charging money and hires an assassin.

So I thought this could become a new project for me. If I’m going to commit to reading my Unreads, shouldn’t I start with the ones that aren’t mine?

My mother-in-law-to-be allowed me to take Douglas Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby from her bookcase clearly not knowing the kind of book borrower I am. That’s going to be the first entry in what I’m tentatively calling “The Borrowed Book Penance Tour.” It’s the right thing to do.

Video Games (More or Less) Taught Me How to Read

As a lad I was mostly indifferent to books, which may have had something to do with the amount of video games I was playing. But I turned out to be an oddly literate gradeschooler in spite of my early lack of bibliophilia. Which may have had something to with the kinds of games I was playing.

I grew up on the text-laden Super Nintendo RPGs, which marked a period where console games were coming into their own as legitimate platforms for storytelling. Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan) blew my Ninja Turtle-addled mind. Then came Chrono Trigger, Ogre Battle, and the deceptively Playskool-ish Earthbound.

When playing those games I had to constantly read, and read, and read out of necessity, whether it was to follow a set of directions, interpret a character’s abilities to form a strategy, or simply follow the story.

When I wasn’t playing neighborhood baseball or Nerf guns, I might have burned through paperbacks of Louis Sachar and Bruce Coville, but I spent even more time poring over instruction manuals, strategy guides, and Gamepro. Of course this wasn’t the same as reading books, but it still proved adequate in helping me acquire a command of the language. (Albeit a strange one, considering how often I “equipped” my backpack before leaving for school or scored a “critical hit” in dodgeball.)

I was doing a lot of reading.

At this time my friends who had more… literary initiative, I suppose, had their noses into Roald Dahl and C.S Lewis and were not on as many 16-bit odysseys as I was. From what I can tell they turned out fine, and I think I did, too.

I remember carpooling with other kids in my elementary school up to Denver to compete in a statewide Brain Quest competition (which we won). A teammate and I were talking about our Gameboys we brought, which caused one of the girls to turn around in her seat and say that video games “rot your brain.” The irony of her remark didn’t strike me until much later.

Gaming just supplemented what few books I read back then, and it also incorporated a good measure of problem solving, strategizing, and basic math. It simply didn’t leave me worse off. I was a weird kid, I must cop to that, but I have reasons to believe that that was more a matter of genetics.

Down, Down-Forward, Forward, Punch

I’ve talked before about the current competition that my game-playing habits enjoy against my willingness to read. In light of that, I have to say there quickly comes a point where playing games doesn’t develop jack; it’s merely time pissed away. When you’re a kid, though, what you’re regularly reading seems to matter less than the fact that you’re regularly reading, period.

This whole video-games-can-supplement-literacy argument I’m putting out there is merely anecdotal, but the science on this sort of thing is mostly unreliable. I came across a recent report that appears to disagree with me, suggesting  that video games actually stunted boys’ growth in language arts by displacing “after-school academic activities” (but I would say that the literary demands of Final Fantasy greatly transcend those of Shrek Smash ‘n Crash, which was one of the games test subjects were to play). Cognitive research on video game playing, though, whether judging it harmful or beneficial, holds to a time-honored tradition of being misleading and sloppily conducted, and this test unfortunately conforms to that in many ways.

Eventually all this reflection will come to bear on my parenting decisions, once I have a lad and/or lass of my own. Much has changed in 15+ years. Games will of course continue to grow in sophistication, which might also present a disadvantage: spoken dialogue and voice acting have replaced most of those endless blocks of text that filled the games of my formative years, so reading’s less and less a part of the experience.

Maybe I’ll have a kid who’s a tough nut, too, when it comes to fostering an interest in books. A moderated pastime in video games would still be okay by me, if not encouraged. Maybe he or she will then turn out to be a weird kid, too. But at that point I’ll tell myself it’s purely genetic.

Every Now and Then… Read a Bad Book

On purpose. I mean, really, who was I kidding with that last one? Even if that Dracula sequel didn’t qualify as good junk food reading, I was going to grind that mother out. Did I pick it up out of morbid curiosity? Not entirely. I can’t even say I read it out of a masochistic urge. It was simply a practice I describe to other people as cleansing the palate.

Because I’ve had it too good, maybe. A solid series of books where the worst of them is still decent… it’s too easy to take quality for granted. I honestly think throwing a stinker in there will heighten my sensitivity to the quality work, raise my appreciation.

But I have to admit that “cleansing the palate” isn’t the right phrase. Dracula the Un-Dead wasn’t a neutralizing taste so much as a mouthful of dirty pennies.

Here’s a more relatable idea: have you ever read lousy literature that raised your spirits with the thought, “Gosh, does this mean I can publish something, too?” And that inspiration doesn’t last long because what quickly follows, you know, is the realization that it also means you live in a world where textual composte can pass for art. How good do you feel now?

Sometimes I like that complicated feeling there, but for me it’s about the first thing I mentioned. It’s the noxious tang of a bad book, a pouch of smelling salts that starts me back awake when strings of goodness threaten to lull me under.