What Will Extra Features on E-Books Look Like?

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Barnes & Noble

We are better at inventing technology than we are at predicting the ramifications of those inventions, especially in the realm of art. The ability to stuff paint into tubes enabled artists to break free of the studio and was a crucial step in the development of impressionism. The development of the small, handheld camera made possible the “decisive moment” of photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. And who foresaw that digital music would spell not just the death of the CD but also the death of the album and the reviving of the single as a dominant force in pop?

Then there is the DVD. You could begin as far back as the laser disc—since most of the DVD’s applications began with that early model—but it had such a limited market that it’s probably better to consider it an incubator of formal innovation. Still, the laser disc did give us the idea of the commentary track, which I consider, after the invention of the mute button, one of the great breakthroughs of our time. The laser disc made it possible. The DVD, with its much wider dissemination, made it a commonplace.

Commentary tracks—by directors on their own films, or by actors, producers, writers, and critics—have indeed become so commonplace that we take them for granted. We shouldn’t. Here we have the ability to listen to Robert Altman talking about Gosford Park while we watch it, or Ernest Lehman discussing the script for North by Northwest, or film critic Michael Jeck thoroughly enriching our understanding of Seven Samurai. These are all master classes in filmmaking, and no one saw it coming 30 years ago. Has it made films any better? Probably not. Has it added to our enjoyment of film? Absolutely.

Now that books are migrating to digital form, publishers are busy looking for ways to supplement and enrich print versions of books. So far, publishers are doing little more than mimicking what you see under bonus materials on a DVD menu, but surely that will change in time. I wouldn’t kick, say, Faulkner’s commentary track for The Sound and the Fury out of bed, but I’m more interested in what he could do with a multimedia approach to fiction. Faulkner himself was intrigued by what amounted to the multimedia possibilities of his time, having marked up Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury with different-colored inks to denote the different levels of time that existed in the manuscript (his publisher deemed the idea too expensive, and somehow Faulkner’s marked-up copy was lost, making it one of the missing grails of antiquarian book collectors).

Somewhere, though, there is some 12- or 15-year-old writer who, 20 years from now, will concoct a hybrid work of art—part book, part film, part symphony?—the likes of which we simply haven’t seen yet. In the shorter term, there is no reason why any book about music should not be amplified, somehow, with a track list of songs referenced in the text. Or how about a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket with an accompanying online gallery showing lithographs of what people of his time knew of Antarctica? These suggestions, of course, fall squarely in the predictable category. It’s what we haven’t seen yet, or dreamed of, that engages my imagination, and, I hope, the imaginations of future artists. But there are stories as yet untold that will surely take full advantage of cross-platforming, miscegenating multimedia.

Will all this spell the death of printed fiction as we know it? Surely not, although there is always the white-noise murmuring of those who think all this technology is beside the point, or that it dilutes the power of words where it does not obscure it altogether. This is nonsense. There are stories that will always be told in words alone. There’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, further technological developments, however much they may seem to impinge on fiction’s turf, will further sharpen our awareness of just what printed forms of literature can do of which they alone are capable. In her famous poem “Poetry,” Marianne Moore declares, “I, too, dislike it.” She goes on, “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine.” In other words, there are some things that a poem can do that nothing else can.

The last century was a master class in those things that only novels could do. Beset by movies, radio, then television, our best novelists concocted books that, while they often served as fodder for Hollywood, worked first and best as words on a page. Compare The Sound and the Fury as a novel and a film. Ludicrous? Yes, but the utter failure of the movie only supports the idea that here is a book that works only as a book. On balance, though, technology opens more doors than it closes, including doors in buildings not yet built. Edison failed to see the ramifications of the recording cylinder just as the Wright brothers failed to foresee carpet bombing. We take the good with the bad, but it takes an artist to see the heretofore unimaginable. D. W. Griffith found the poetry in film; Charlie Christian heard the possibilities in amplifying the guitar. Somewhere, right now, there’s some kid, the love child of Jorge Luis Borges and Kathryn Bigelow, thinking, “Hmm, what if you started with a commentary track and worked back from there?”

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