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More Can Be Less: A No Vote on Enhanced E-books

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More Can Be Less: A No Vote on Enhanced E-books

by Curt Matthews

My information technology–savvy sons, and the geek community in general, love to get a rise out of me by suggesting that a rectangle of text on a page or on an e-reader is a dead fish, just lying there, inert. Why not perk up that page by adding some color, some music, some video, some interactivity?

The younger generation, they say, expects a lot of vitality in the materials with which it will engage; but now, thank goodness, the iPad has arrived. Everything is going to change because this device does not suffer from any of the crippling limitations of the traditional book. A page can be made to sing and dance and thereby hope to capture the attention of young persons.

The iPad is a wonderful thing, and it will surely find many uses, some of them truly new and probably unthought-of as yet. But it is highly unlikely to change the deep nature of the book as we now know it.

Some years ago, when the information technologist Marshall McLuhan made himself famous by coming up with the phrase “The medium is the message,” the medium he was talking about was television (remember, this was quite a while ago). His main point, subtracting the hyperbole, was that the technical requirements of television—the small screen, closeups of the actors, and so on—played a large role in shaping the meaning or experience a program could convey. What could happen to you while watching TV had to be quite different from what could happen to you in a movie theater.

McLuhan has fallen out of favor, but surely he had an important insight. A movie, a play, a TV program, a video game, an illustrated book, a text-only book—these various media offer a wide range of different pleasures and benefits. We would not want to have to get along with fewer possibilities, and the iPad may well add one, but it will not replace any of those we use now.

Add-ons That Subtract

What if we do somehow squeeze many types of media onto one small screen? I remember trying to watch The Ten Commandments on a portable TV. Even Charlton Heston could not look much like Moses on that little screen. The effect was simply ridiculous. And probably the initial attempts to make the iPad into a new media platform will fall flat, just as such efforts have in the past.

That dull rectangle of print on a page may not need to be improved by adding sound, moving images, or anything at all. Those of us who really know how to read know that a page of text can be a doorway into a mental world far more vivid than any electronic device could ever hope to emulate. Save us from distraction! In media, more can easily be less.

Guest columnist Curt Matthews was president of the IBPA board for two years after serving as a board member. He is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group, the first independent press distributor and now the third largest.



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