Forgive me for starting out all high-falutin', but an anecdote I heard about the late, great critic Susan Sontag makes for a good way into this consideration of four new, enhanced e-books.
A decade ago, Sontag was walking with a friend through the glowing, neon streets of Tokyo, a place like a series of contiguous Times Squares, when she suddenly looked up at the endlessly distracting electric city and exclaimed in dismay, "It's the end of reading!"
Sontag, one of the great advocates of the written word, unknowingly anticipated the fear of many book lovers about the dawning of digital books: will reading on screens, our e-books spliced with video, links, and other gizmos, turn the concentrated act and escape of reading into something diluted and distracting?
Based on four just-released enhanced e-books from HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Hyperion, that's not likely to happen. Reading is still fun for all the reasons it always was, and some of the ideas that publishers are coming up with to enhance their books are actually pretty cool—but some work better than others, and some don't work at all. These enhancements can interrupt immersive reading, but in some kinds of books, that's okay.
From HarperCollins comes Louder than Words: Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional with the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence by Joe Navarro ($14.99). It's a business book that tells readers how to interpret body language to gain insight into what colleagues and competitors really think in business situations. Navarro, a former FBI agent, also offers instruction on how to project the right kind of body language for business success. Interspersed with the text are 22 videos, many of which feature Navarro himself, showing what the text describes.
The videos work well for a few obvious reasons—this is a book about interpreting visual information, so it naturally benefits from illustrations. Navarro models the nonverbal behavior he's written about. The videos also offer examples of various behaviors, so readers know what to look for in order to apply the book's lessons to their everyday lives. Plus, this can be rather dry reading. The videos come as welcome breaks rather than interruptions. This is not a book one necessarily wants to be totally immersed in.
The same holds true for Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein (Scribner, $15.99). This nonfiction work traces not only Richard Nixon's rise to power but the social and political climate during the 1960s and the Vietnam War that led into Nixon's presidency and the consequences of that administration. Taking advantage of its corporate affiliation with CBS, Simon & Schuster/Scribner got access to archival news footage from the Nixon era, so 27 videos are scattered throughout the text, offering visual illumination of the events being narrated. Particularly interesting is a clip from the Nixon/Kennedy debates. The only downside is that this is a book one might want to get lost in, and the videos pull one out. But if that's the case, it's easy to ignore them and use the linked table of contents to go back and view them later.
Where these enhanced e-books become more problematic, at least for me, is with fiction, in which one of the great pleasures is imagining how the characters look and act. The enhanced editions of both Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth (which publisher Penguin is calling an amplified e-book) and The Secret Diary of Ashley Juergens (Hyperion) splice footage from TV shows; the reader who can avoid seeing those actors' faces every time he or she reads the characters' names is also the magical person who can avoid thinking of an elephant when told not to think of an elephant.
That said, both e-books are pretty cool. Pillars ($12.99), a novel about the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages, is a stand-alone iPad app, not an iBooks e-book, and a gargantuan (almost two gigabytes, meaning it'll occupy a sizable percentage of your iPad) app at that, featuring not only clips from the Starz miniseries featuring Donald Sutherland, but also a graphical character tree made to look like a stained glass window and fun-to-navigate, cathedral-themed menus. The book itself lives in its own part of the app, while the videos and other materials are accessible from the main menu or through submenus you can get to by double-tapping the book, so the enhancements are not actually integrated into the text.
Maybe The Secret Diary of Ashley Juergens ($12.99) should be excused from the above criticism: it is, after all, a book written by a TV character, Ashley Juergens of the ABC Family show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. So the snippets readers will see in this enhanced version depict an equally real and imaginary vision of Ashley. Readers of this e-book, most probably tweens and young teens, will enjoy the occasional dip into episodes—embedded amid the text, though you can simply choose not to play them—from the show while the book narrates what happened between seasons.
There's no improving on reading; it's an age-old and time-tested technology that works about as well as it can. These enhanced e-books provide an additional experience—video—that some will think of as an enhancement and others will call a distraction. Whatever your opinion about video embedded in books, there's no doubt you'll be seeing lots more of it. But that doesn't mean the end of reading. —Craig Morgan Teicher
Editor's Note: This begins PW's review coverage of enhanced e-books. For information on getting enhanced e-books reviewed in the future, e-mail Craig Teicher at email@example.com. Future reviews will be on a book-by-book basis and appear in the Reviews section.