Tricks in the Book


in Archive


Your heart is racing and your breath feels constricted. You’ve started to sweat around your hairline. You’re not sure if you should call 911, lay down, open a window, or…put down the book.

Have you ever read a book and found yourself at a loss as to what to think and feel?

Yeah. Me neither. But for those who have, consider Sensory Fiction, a wearable device and augmented book now in prototype at MIT. It straps on, and most of its brains ride right between the shoulder blades; it mostly looks like a techno-savvy baby carrier.

As the protagonist’s emotional or physical state changes, so does the reader’s, via ambient light, slight vibrations, and, get this: localized temperature fluctuations and constricting airbags that actually change the reader’s heart rate. The emotional response I’m getting right now, without wearing the device, is: fear. The device has airbags?

Let’s discuss the obvious. For instance: if a book is well-written, we don’t need a “shiver simulator.” I mean, no one told me to be sad when Anna threw herself in front of a train. Can a device make my heart feel scooped out like so many books have through the years (most recently, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped)?

But this invention is one of those surprises that is no surprise. We have transferred some of our love for the people with whom our objects are meant to connect us, to the objects themselves. See Her (no, really — see Her); see ANYONE whose face is absorbed in a screen when a real live loved one’s face is in front of him; see EVERYONE who obsessively checks for the location of his/her phone approximately every 20 seconds when not actively using it. The eyes flicker, the hands frisk pockets — we all have developed the “Smartphone Twitch.” (The “Smartphone Twitch” should not be confused with the “iPhone Domino Effect,” i.e., when one person checks his or her phone, thereby granting unspoken permission for everyone around him or her to do the same.)

There’s a dichotomy to all of this. As we are more and more tethered to and dependent upon our devices, and thereby somehow less than without them, our smartphones, tablets, etc. have simultaneously turned us into superheroes. We can turn on the heat and lights in our homes; start our cars; surveil and globally position anyone and everyone. With our devices, we can assess air quality, gas leaks, temperature, and humidity. We can detect fish underwater; augment reality (imagine Photoshopping a piece of Ikea furniture into your living room, only better — it’s like that); and see in the dark (I told you, we are superheroes).

While walking down the street, we can just say the words “frozen yogurt” into our devices, and lo, find some.  When I FaceTime with my co-editor, who happens to be in Abu Dhabi, guess what? It feels like she’s in NY, or next door, or, God help me, right here. (Though due to the time difference, when she’s drinking coffee, I’m drinking wine and vice versa.) Just the other day, I sneezed and frantically covered my nose while doing so, but that didn’t stop her from rocking back, away from her screen and my spray.

Our devices remember appointments and birthdays and phone numbers for us. We love them, quite literally; it only makes sense that the next step is to ask our devices to feel for us.

Developers Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault believe the device won’t be manufactured in the near future. The creation was only “meant to provoke discussion,” Hope says. “As designers and researchers, we like to think that we contribute to the future and therefore have the obligation to consider those [science fiction] scenarios, both in positive and negative ways,” Legault says.

The Sensory Fiction team used The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree. In this novella, the protagonist, named Philadelphia Burke (but called P. Burke)  rollercoasters between happiness and desperation, love and loneliness, the sunshine of Barcelona and the imprisonment of a dank cellar.  That emotional trajectory is replicated via the device — or when one rides the subway, sees everyone on their devices, and slowly realizes that they are playing games, not reading or even communicating with loved ones.

“You feel this story in your gut — it is an amazing example of the power of fiction to make us feel and empathize with the protagonist,” Hope says. “Because our imaginations and emotions were so strongly moved by this story, we wondered how we could heighten that experience.”

Though Sensory Fiction may never be marketed, another new reading enhancer start-up, Booktrack, is already gaining ground. Booktrack does what the name implies: It adds music and sound effects to your reading experience. Because that’s what’s been missing all along?

Paul Cameron, Booktrack’s co-founder and CEO, says the soundtracks “enhance your imagination and keep you in the story longer. And they make it fun to read again. If you’re not reading all the time, they might help you rediscover reading.”

I’m not sure how providing the sounds of London streets, police sirens, doorbells, and emotionally manipulative music “enhances” our imagination so much as does the imaginative work for us. I can only liken the experience to watching the movie rather than reading the book.  And I don’t know when I’ve ever heard someone say that he or she thought the film adaptation better .

In a time when our biggest publisher is a retailer, these ideas of reading intensifiers don’t seem so out of left field.  We’re always looking for what’s next and next and next. Self-publishing has (almost) lost its taint of no-one-else-will-publish-me loserdom and is beginning to look renegade — like taking back the reins and therefore, control. The industry term for it is “Independent Publishing,” giving it class and even a cool spin (think about the music industry).

The e-book sales boom has flattened out, but new digital-only publishing houses are gaining new ground. The iPad has led to a surge in interactive books, and the Kindle makes it possible to instantly and digitally share notes and extracts with friends. Booktrack allows one to listen to books, mostly from Project Gutenberg; and even key in, sound-engineer from the site’s library of music and sound effects, and share his or her own text. What’s next?

Booktrack is heavily promoting itself, and gathering an illustrious team of supporters, like oh, I don’t know…Harper Collins. Authors James Frey and Salman Rushdie were at the app’s launch party. Peter Theil, founder of Paypal, has lent his money and his reputation to this endeavor.  We’ll have to wait and see (insert sound of clock ticking).

I am still not used to reading on my Kindle, especially that, when reading, I see the percentage I’ve read, rather than feeling the page heft shift from my right hand to my left. But of course, I had to check out the Booktrack site. I love a good, manipulative soundtrack. In the first five seconds of Lone Survivor I recognized the style of “Explosions in the Sky,” the band who slayed me during all of Friday Night Lights, and I teared up way before it was appropriate. But soundtracks for my books? When I want to be inside my head?

I listened to — and oh, yeah, read — The Wonderful World of Oz, from the opening banjo music through the roaring cyclone. Toto barked. The cellar door slammed. After about three minutes, I had to shut off the progress indicator, as the only emotion I had, via sound or otherwise, was anxiety. Paying attention to my reading rate rather than what I’m reading is another distraction in a world of distractions.

I’ve been a bibliophile since birth, and if any of these devices increase the audience for books, I’ll be stoked. The advent of the Internet — and all of the blogging and sharing and e-publishing and e-zines and, and, and — sometimes has me a bit terrorized that everyone is talking/blogging and no one is listening/reading. I picture a field of geese quacking. It’s loud and crowded and it’s filled with poo.

I am no Luddite, but I see the very reason we go to books — to get lost in an different world, to empathize with an other, to escape — might get lost if our emotions and even our physical reactions are forced. Rather than transport us to another world, these reading augmenters force us into someone else’s perception of another world.

I’m just thinking: just because we can do something, does that mean we have to? I saw an app today that plays only video clips of “fails.”  An app for that.


Ears on the backs of rats=not good

Thank you, inventors: I appreciate your efforts, but why don’t we all work on something really useful, like flying cars or tele-transportation, and leave books alone? • 18 March 2014


Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly, co-director of the Drexel Publishing Group, and a Teaching Professor at Drexel University. She writes fiction and essays, with work in publications such, the New York Times, Family Circle, Drunken Boat and other venues. She wrote weekly for Philadelphia Magazine. She is currently working on My Gratitude, a collection of essays.