It’s taken for granted that an ebook will be almost indistinguishable from its paper version. You could change the font or text size, sure, but you aren’t getting anything that couldn’t be achieved in print. But reading text on a screen offers a lot more options: when reading lengthy online pieces, we expect to have embedded images, videos, and hyperlinks mixed in with the text. Click on a Wikipedia article, and it’s a very different experience from a paper encyclopedia, if just for the links. You can get lost in a never-ending proliferation of tabs. Paper books don’t usually invite this non-linear reading experience, and ebooks copy this system.
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So why did interactive ebooks never take off? Why can’t I check out an interactive version of my favourite book, where there is an embedded playlist, so I hear the same music or bird songs the characters are listening to? Why don’t my textbooks all come with interactive illustrations that can be rotated and disassembled? Why isn’t there an ebook of House of Leaves that is even more immersive and claustrophobic? Where are the ebook gifs, I ask you?
There’s an excellent Wired article by Steven Johnson that I recommend called “Why No One Clicked On the Great Hypertext Story.” In it, Johnson describes how in the ’90s, with the growing possibilities of the internet, “hypertext fiction” became not only possible, but seen as the future of literature: a pick-your-path story for the digital age. After all, the internet makes the navigation of these kind of stories a lot easier. This technology opened up a lot of possibilities for storytelling. Decades later, we have come nowhere near realizing that potential.
For hypertext fiction, there are were a couple of problems, and they can be expanded to interactive text in general. For one thing, they were incredibly difficult to write. A story that can be endlessly reshuffled in its parts to combine into new stories is a lot to demand of an author, but even the most basic of interactive ebooks requires additional work to finding the right words. Imagine if authors not only had to craft their world, but also provide Pottermore-style interactive illustrations for each scene, and select the perfect soundtrack.
Even when you have all the component parts, it’s a whole other layer of difficulty to make an interactive ebook work. Right now, most interactive ebooks are available as their own apps, because the most popular ebook apps don’t support interactive formats. And if you’re going to be making an app, you need to be able to code.
There’s a lot more demanded on the reader’s end. You have to find and download each individual book’s app . . . . If they are truly interactive, these ebooks also require more from their readers—which was another problem with hypertext fiction. Most people picking up a book don’t want endless ways to read them, and don’t want to pause partway to play a mini game before they can read the next chapter. For the most part, we want our books to be linear.
This isn’t to say that interactive ebooks don’t exist. There are some, but they have not come anywhere near to being mainstream. They aren’t available as a format next to the audiobook and standard ebook option.
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[I]s the simple, text-based format of books a feature, not a deficit?
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At their best, books become invisible. They are the means by which we dive into a story, and once we are invested, we stop even seeing the words in front of our eyes. We don’t register that we’re reading. We’re transported. An interactive ebook may end up being less engaging than the plain text version, because it creates a barrier to losing yourself in the story; it makes it harder to forget that you’re reading.
Link to the rest at BookRiot
PG suggests linearity in books is a feature, not a bug. He suggests the human brain is constructed to absorb, retain and analyze information in a linear form.
Beginning, middle and end is not the only way stories can be constructed or recounted, but it is almost certainly the most common story form. Flashbacks can be interesting, but, ultimately they’re not usually satisfactory (at least for PG) unless they contribute to an understanding of a character or story at the time when the story, in the main, is taking place.
For the record, PG doesn’t characterize stories that begin, “When I was a little girl . . .” and end with something like “And so, I’ve always remembered to be kind to all animals.” as a flashback so much as it is a story that takes place in the past with a bit of a frame on it.
PG also doesn’t have a problem with the linearity of two parallel stories taking place at different times with the narratives jumping between past and present so long as they are linked in some way that creates a satisfying experience for the reader. However, if an author tried to combine an episodic telling of the stories of Charlotte’s Web and The Cat in the Hat into a single narrative, PG doubts that a result more satisfying than reading each story by itself would be delivered to the reader.
PG also poses a question. He understands there is a concern with substantial numbers of young people who seldom read for a variety of reasons including poor schools, addictive videogames, unlimited television, etc., etc.
However, is there any real evidence that children who receive a decent education that includes reading and have the opportunity to read outside of school are not enjoying the experience and continuing to read as they grow older? In other words, is there significant and reliable evidence that stories told linearly, beginning, middle and end, are no longer satisfying for such children?
Or, perhaps, PG is entirely out of touch and wrong as can be?