For most people, silence is an important component of reading. Dutiful parents raise children with quiet time for books, librarians shush noisy patrons, and teachers dispatch pupils to read in still corners of classrooms.
One company wants to use the new world of ebooks to shatter this tradition and give noise to books. Booktrack, a New Zealand firm, is adding ambient sounds, sound effects, and even music to ebooks. By doing so, it hopes to transform reading the way sound transformed silent film. “Lots of people, when they hear about Booktrack, jump to the wrong conclusion,” co-founder Paul Cameron explained from his San Francisco office. The plan is not to diminish the importance of reading, rather to strengthen it. What we do is enhance reading.”
Opening any of the dozens of sound-enhanced books on Booktrack’s website (www.booktrack.com), a reader quickly gets a sense of the concept. Ominous music plays and a dog can be heard panting on the opening pages of The Spider Thief, a new thriller by Laurence MacNaughton. For Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” producers mixed piano and violin music with footsteps, the crackle of a fire, drawers opening, and the rustling of paper.
At first the effect is quite startling, and it takes a bit of effort to properly adjust the volume as well as the pace of the soundtrack to match one’s reading speed. But soon the soundtrack — at least when well paired to the words — seems quite natural. As in a movie, one is manipulated by the sound’s effect without it noticeably intruding on the experience.
That, of course, is the key to making this idea work. If the enhancements are obtrusive, they break the spell that can be induced when you forget you are reading and lose yourself in the story. “Reading is one of the few ways you can do that,” Cameron said. “Dreaming is another one.”
It was Cameron’s brother Mark who came up with the germ of the idea. He noticed that his fellow public-transit commuters often listened to music while reading ebooks. He decided to try methodically pairing music to what he was reading. When he told his brother about what he had done, the pair decided to provide all readers with what Paul calls “a more cinematic-type experience.”
Several years and millions of dollars later, the resulting Booktrack ebook looks like other ebooks except for a small arrow that descends the right-hand side of the page, indicating the pace of the sounds. Readers use a set of controls to synchronize the sound to their reading speed, which can be set as low as a few words a minute to more than 1,000 words a minute.
When books went digital, there was a sense this might level the playing field for books in competing against video games and other distracting pastimes for young people’s attention. Paul Cameron believes that enhancing books with sounds is a critical part of winning that battle. “A society that reads is a good society. We want to make reading relevant to today’s generation.”
He is also convinced that Booktrack will alter reading for the better. He backs his optimism with a study his company commissioned. Liel Leibovitz, a visiting assistant professor at New York University who researches video games, new media, and the interaction between humans and machines, found both comprehension and retention rates increased with books enhanced with sound. “Subjects using the Booktrack software performed categorically better on information retention tests and attested to increased focus and greater clarity,” the professor concluded. “This is an exciting new technology that deserves further attention.”
Brimming with ambition, Cameron and his colleagues at Booktrack are not limiting themselves to changing reading. They also want to alter the manner by which authors present their work. To that end, authors can use an immense library of sounds on the Booktrack website to produce sound-enhanced versions of their books.
Cameron is aware of the skepticism directed toward his work. Most press accounts dutifully include a naysayer. For instance, Kevin Ryan, who owns a San Francisco bookstore, told CBS News, “How much farther away can you get from the quiet act of reading a book to yourself than having a soundtrack provided to you.”
On the other hand, David Wilk, a consultant with years of experience in the book trade and now a guru of the digital-book world, cautions that it’s too early to dismiss technological enhancements to ebooks. “It took television 50 or 60 years to go from live proscenium filming with one camera to the sophisticated multi-camera computer-enhanced productions we see today.”
In San Francisco, Cameron’s faith is unwavering. An apostle of giving readers a movielike experience, he is out to convert the world. One day he met with Mark D’Arcy, director of global creative solutions at Facebook. At first D’Arcy seemed quite uninterested in Cameron’s project. “When I read, I read in silence,” he told Cameron.
But he was persuaded to pick up an iPad and headsets and give it a try. After about 15 minutes, D’Arcy returned to Cameron. “I didn’t see the future of reading,” he said. “I just heard it.” ◀