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.

10 Comments »

  1. [...] originally posted on An American Editor [...]

    Pingback by Enhanced eBooks & the Death of Imagination | The Digital Reader — June 1, 2010 @ 7:52 am | Reply

  2. You are SO right-on. As a high school art teacher, the lack of ability in today’s teens to think creatively was so sad.

    Comment by Kris — June 1, 2010 @ 10:53 am | Reply

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  4. Enhanced books do not have to paint imagination-limiting images of fictional characters, but they can be very helpful in helping you understand the real places, historical periods and social contexts in which they exist. They can allow you to hear the music they hear and sketch out on maps the journeys they take. We offer all of this, and more, at http://www.bookdrum.com, and I urge you to take a look at the positive possibilities of the enhanced book.

    Comment by Hector Macdonald — June 2, 2010 @ 5:10 am | Reply

    • Book Drum looks interesting but seems to me to be a distraction, not an enhancement. I looked at the To Kill a Mockingbird profile. My first question is does a reader need to read the book or can they understand the book just by reading the profile? Second, if I were reading the book, the constant back and forth to get the profile’s commentary would mean no continuous reading flow. How much would I really then get out of reading the original book? The more I looked at the profile, the more it reminded me of a sophisticated Cliff Notes approach to the book.

      If Book Drum were used by readers after having first read the profiled book so as to enhance understanding, I think Book Drum would be superlative. But I don’t think that is how it would be used by students whose sole desire is to get through an assignment as quickly and easily as possible. Once one has read the Summary, the Reviews, and a few of the Bookmarks, there really is little need to read the book. Truthfully, I think it is the belief that books need enhancing that sets the enhancing process down the wrong track.

      Comment by americaneditor — June 2, 2010 @ 7:43 am | Reply

      • This does not reflect a problem with the concept, or the reality, of Book Drum — or of Enhanced eBooks. It reflects a problem with the concept, and the reality, of “assignment”.

        On a road trip with several friends, we all fell into a discussion of education, and of the various ways that “kids these days” are the same as, and different from, kids in former times (e.g. our own former selves); the discussion started with a teacher of high-school English describing her experiences teaching “Beowulf”, and the great success that she found by taking that tack that ” ‘Beowulf’ is the greatest grade-B monster movie EVER!!”, analyzing the many archetypical and stereotypical aspects of the story. (This was before the modern, up-to-the-minute, CGI extravaganza movie of “Beowulf” came out.)

        Somewhat later in that discussion, I described an incident in an article about “helicopter parenting” that I had read and been struck by. This incident, the article claimed, had actually happened in real life. A college-guidance counselor, doing an intake interview with a student who had always gotten straight A’s, started with what seemed to be a “gimme” question: “What are some books that you have read that are important to you, that have changed your life? We can use your experiences with them as material for college-application essays.”. The reply: “Why would I ever read a book if I didn’t have to?”

        The instantaneous chorus of screams of horror and revulsion, a universal and almost INSTINCTIVE chorus of screams, was everything that I could have hoped for. It proved that in raising that particular article and that particular incident, that I had found so striking, I was definitely on the right track — with having an interesting discussion, with this particular group of friends.

        The problem, of course, lies in the two words “have to”. It’s easy enough to spin out, from those two words, a life story for the diligent straight-A-earning student who uttered, and intended sincerely, the question: “Why would I ever read a book if I didn’t have to?”. The parents and the teachers and the other authority figures in this student’s life evidently consistently held, and enforced, the attitude: here’s this book, it’s your job to read it, it’s your job to PROVE that you have read it via assignments and papers and quizzes and tests, we couldn’t care less if you actually LIKE the book or LIKE your job, all that we care about is that you DO it.

        And therefore the student diligently DID it.

        Evidently, nobody in that student’s life had ever bothered to ask that student, “Do you LIKE reading? Have you EVER liked anything that you have read?”. An honest answer of “no and no” should have provoked, in the supposedly “responsible” adults in that student’s life, the same chorus of horrified screams that the whole story provoked among my friends. (Assuming, of course, that the incident actually happened as the article described, and for the reasons that the article and I and my friends all inferred.)

        Book Drum, and other similarly Enhanced eBooks, will indeed be damaging to students like that one — who feel, upon seeing a book, the same weary dislike and resentment that a ditch-digger feels upon seeing a shovel, and for the exact same reasons. But that is the fault of adults who PUSH students into that attitude: adults who TRAIN students to believe that reading itself is a tedious chore that no sane mind would EVER do voluntarily, by drowning those students in tedious reading and tedious reading-related chores that indeed nobody WOULD ever voluntarily want to do, not in anything like that quantity anyway. If there is “little need to read the book” in order to complete the assignment that is supposedly designed to REQUIRE reading the book, then that is a problem with the assignment, and with the people who designed and assigned that assignment. If “enhancements” really do successfully obviate the “need to read the book”, then they’re doing everyone a great service by exposing the whole system for the cynical fraud that it is.

        If the whole system actually SURVIVES this exposure, or even (in effect) CO-OPTS such enhancements into being ENABLERS for the whole fraud, by making the whole system APPEAR to be successfully teaching things that are worth learning when in fact it is doing nothing of the kind and is permanently damaging the learners, then THAT is a separate problem — and a much larger problem.

        Comment by dteleki — June 3, 2010 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  5. Bearing in mind that there are few limitations to what enhanced eBooks can do, certainly there must be some way that publishers and writers can use “enhancements” to foster creativity instead of stifling it. You’ve given time and bytes to bringing up the problem, now spend some time and imagination coming up with a solution or a counter.

    Enhanced ebooks should be interactive. What you describe here isn’t interaction but glorified illustration. Enhancements don’t have to be limited to illustrating the action of the story. Interaction can become part of the story. Creative enhancements of the classics will be rather difficult, but novels to come can take advantage of the technology. Imagine a mystery novel in which you have to actually solve the mystery to get to the end. Or a children’s book that lets kids illustrate and animate the story themselves.

    Imagine even something as simple as a novel (or history book) that, at the end of each chapter, asks “What would you do next?” Simple and schlocky, yes, but it does require a certain level of synthesis, analysis, and introspection that is missing from watching a video.

    So I ask, how can we “enhance” some of the classics to spur, not spurn, creativity and thought?

    Comment by 4ndyman — June 2, 2010 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

  6. As for your reply about Book Drum above (i.e., “I don’t think that is how it would be used by students whose sole desire is to get through an assignment as quickly and easily as possible.”), if students are focused on speed and ease, even if they only have the book itself, they aren’t going to take the time to read and absorb the text, enhanced or not.

    We can’t build the future of literature based on the lowest common denominator.

    Comment by 4ndyman — June 2, 2010 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  7. [...] Will enhanced ebooks lead to the death of imagination? [...]

    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Fit To Be Linked — June 4, 2010 @ 7:54 am | Reply

  8. I think this post gives readers too little credit and uses a slippery slope thinking. Although we can imagine that enhanced books might limit creative thinking, it’s not necessarily true that they will.

    Another commenter mentioned that enhanced books may add to creativity, rather than take away from it, and I agree. One example from literature is Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Although this was written before ebooks or ehanced books, Sebald uses photographs throughout the book, which adds a graphic element to the story. Because the photographs are not exactly matched to the text, however, they create a juxtaposition that adds to (rather than takes away from) the meaning of the story and the imagination required of its readers. I think it’s brilliant — and an excellent example of what possibilities might be in store, if writers use new forms creatively.

    Comment by Kathryn — June 5, 2010 @ 4:37 pm | Reply


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