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Dear John Makinson and Penguin, please don't "reinvent" books

"Reading literature makes you a more well-rounded individual." That's what an author told me once. Notice he didn't say "watching literature."

paidContent:UK has an article on a presentation Penguin Books' CEO John Makinson gave here in London on Tuesday. Makinson presented ideas on how publishers might approach Apple's iPad and the iBookstore. Makinson revealed "We will be embedding audio, video and streaming in to everything we do. The .epub format, which is the standard for ebooks at the present, is designed to support traditional narrative text, but not this cool stuff that we're now talking about."

"This cool stuff" includes turning books into applications with "online communities" for fans with live chat between readers and other multimedia effects. "The definition of the book itself is up for grabs," Makinson said. A copy of Pride And Prejudice might conceivably come with videos of Keira Knightly or Colin Firth (the various movie adaptation's cast). "We don't know whether a video introduction will be valuable to a consumer. We will only find answers to these questions by trial and error."

An electronic format with live chat, community forums, audio and video is called a web site. Or maybe an interactive Blu-Ray disc. Books are words arranged on a page (whether paper or digital) that are meant to be assimilated through the eye and processed in the brain with the reader adding much to the story itself – like what a character looks or sounds like.
We've got enough mindless entertainment in the world today. When I read War and Peace, I don't want to hear an actor reciting Bezukhov's lines. I want to read them for myself and add my own thoughts and conjecture to what he is saying and why he is saying it. When I watch a movie or listen to an audio book, very little is left to the imagination. Our active involvement becomes passive acceptance.

Reading does make you a more well-rounded individual. It also makes you smarter. Literally. Reading rewires synapses in the brain through neuroplastic changes in a way that passive entertainment like sitcoms or movies can't do.The magic in reading is that the reader must take a proactive involvement in the story. He must focus his attention on the words that form sentences that form paragraphs that form ideas. When I'm watching a movie, it's very easy to snack on food or talk on the phone at the same time. When I read I must be completely involved in the page.

There's an epiphany that comes with reading when you realize that something a character said, thought, or did is something that you have harbored in yourself and, for a brief moment, that little parallel between what you've read on the page and what you've actually experienced in the real world makes you understand yourself in a clearer light. That's something that distracting chat rooms and videos can't do because they take the quiet self-introspection out.

Penguin has always been about literature to me, not interactive hodgepodge. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, conceived of the company when he was standing on a train station platform in front of a magazine and junk fiction vendor. He could find nothing worth reading so he decided to start publishing classic paperback editions of literature of proven quality which would be cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine.

The current vending machine is Apple's iPad. It's a vending machine that would work well for magazines and, sadly, for Penguin's new multimedia take on books. I'm not against digitizing books, mind you. Digital books are good for some things like, as my colleague wrote, making notes in-margin, highlighting text, bookmarking, and in-text dictionary lookup. But leave the whiz-bang, short-attention-span features out. There's enough mind-numbing entertainment in the world today. Stick to the printed word. Stay true to Lane's vision and keep the "quality" in the literature. More often than not, in this day and age when you supplant words with video, the words lose and that "well-rounded individual" is a little less round because of it.

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