An American Editor

June 1, 2010

Enhanced eBooks & the Death of Imagination

Enhanced ebooks, TV, videos, video games all share a common feature — they stifle imagination and creativity. Enhanced ebooks have a proper role to play in educating people, but perhaps not in educating the very young.

OK, I admit I’m old and that I can remember back to the birth of television, when The Lone Ranger was the hot show. And I can remember picking up a book and letting the words create a picture in my mind. These pictures were born from my understanding of what the words meant. Authors had to create worlds in writing that could be recreated by me. When Robin Hood described Maid Marian, I recreated her in my mind. One day she could be as short as me, the next twice my height. As I grew and aged, so did my mental picture of Maid Marian — all because as I experienced life and gained new insights into my world, I could apply those insights – via my imagination — to Maid Marian and to Robin Hood. 

Alas, I fear that “enhanced” ebooks will take away the last bastion of imagination. We already know that videos and movies hurt the imaginative process. We watch a movie and we no longer have to imagine the effect of a sword thrust through the chest — it is given to us graphically. We do not have to imagine what happens when a soldier picks up a live grenade and it explodes — the movie tells us clearly. Avatar left nothing for the viewer to self-create, which may be why it was so successful. We do not have to imagine because someone else has already imagined for us. How many of us had one picture of Robin Hood — a picture we created via our imagination when we first read the book — that was supplanted by Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood after we saw the movie in our youth?

Books — especially books for the preadolescent child – are the last bastion of imagination. When an author describes the heroine, we need to close our eyes and create that picture. We exercise our cognitive abilities. If the author describes a sword thrust to the chest, we imagine it within the limits of our experience and within the limits of our tolerance. These limitations, however, do not exist when we see the result displayed visually in a movie with ever increasing explicitness. (Do I really need to see the intestines falling out of a belly wound? Does it really add to the movie’s value?)

What made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so great? For those who read the books as children, it was the ability to create from Tolkien’s words the world of the hobbits and elves and other characters. We could create our own Gollum. Now, assuming someone actually reads the books after having seen the Peter Jackson interpretation, is the reader likely to create his or her own world based on Tolkien’s words or will they simply picture Jackson’s visuals? My experience suggests the latter. Will this not also be a problem for future Harry Potter fans? Won’t future readers conjure up Harry, Ron, and Hermione as the three stars of the movies?

Maybe this doesn’t matter for someone of my age, although I would like to think it does. (They do say that exercising the mind’s thinking processes is the most important thing one can do to thwart memory loss in old age.) But certainly it matters for the young who already face a dearth of opportunities to exercise their imagination. (Remember when the broomstick was your horse and it was your imagination that made it so? Now the broomstick looks like a horse?) Schools are test preparers and have no time to coddle imagination. Parents too often think quality time with their children is watching TV or playing a video game — imagination-numbing activities — rather than reading a book or playing a board game that requires thinking.

It isn’t that enhanced ebooks don’t have a proper place or role; they do. A biology text with video would be useful and probably enhance understanding. But I’m not convinced that enhanced fiction or non-science, -technical, or -math nonfiction ebooks are good for learners, especially young learners as a general proposition (there will always be exceptions to every rule).

I am particularly worried that enhanced ebooks will supplant the parental role with the very young, as TV and videos and video games do. Just as parents often turn to TV, videos, and video games to babysit their 3-year-old child, they may turn to enhanced ebooks. At least one bastion of creativity and imagination should be preserved. Parents need to spend more time with their children, especially in the preadolescent years, and that time should be encouraging use of the childrens’ imagination and brain power, not letting someone else’s imagination rule them.

What prompts my concern? A large-scale, long-running Canadian study that was reported in many U.S. newspapers and on the New York Times Health blog. The study didn’t address issues of imagination, but it seems to me that just as TV robs “effort control” skills, it also robs creative skills. In today’s hard-to-get-ahead world that often requires both parents to work just to keep from drowning, it is foolhardy to rely solely on parents to do what is right and necessary. (How many parents do you know who would be willing to cancel their cable TV so that they aren’t tempted to use TV as a babysitter? How many young children have their own cell phones?)

Publishers of ebooks need to step up to the plate and recognize that they do have a social responsibility. Today’s young are tomorrows’ readers and writers, both of which publishers will need. Rather than rushing everything possible to “enhanced ebook” status in hopes of propping up revenues, publishers should look to the their own future: If they cannot instill the desire to read in the young, they will have no future readers to sell books to.

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