Friday, August 26, 2011


Hi folks,

You might want to look at this link before reading what I have to say about it.

While there, check out the videos provided, especially the one titled “Booktrack Interview with James Frey.”

Booktrack is the new technology that provides sound tracks for e-books. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea, one that will enhance the reading experience vastly. But… is there a downside?

Well… perhaps. Okay. Yes.

One factor the proponents of it (James Frey, for one, is pioneering its use), don’t mention is that it changes what has always been, to use Marshall McLuhan’s terms, a cool media into a hot one. For those who are perhaps somewhat removed from the sophomore communication classes on McLuhan’s theories we sat through at ol’ State U., he divided media into two basic categories—“hot” and “cool” media.

In basic terms, a hot media is one that is low in audience participation because more than one sense is involved. Examples are movies and television where more than one sense is involved, i.e., sight and sound. Sensory experience trumps intellectual.

Cool media are media where audience participation is much higher. Examples are books and radio, where only one sense is involved—sight in written material, and sound in radio broadcasts. Intellectual experience trumps sensual.

The fewer senses involved, the higher the degree of audience participation. The participant in a cool media, like a novel, has to bring something to the table to be able to enjoy the experience. That “something” is imagination. The same for radio. We hear the broadcast, but rely on our imaginations to furnish the context. We see the words in a novel, but rely on our imaginations to furnish the context.

Basically, the cooler the media, the more the mind and intelligence of the participant are engaged.

A reader is much more engaged in the experience than a movie-goer, who basically sits in his or her seat and lets the sound track and visuals furnish most of the experience. In other words, a cool media requires mental and intellectual participation; a hot media, much, much less. Everything is done for you in a movie and the participant basically sits there and lets the media take over much of the brain’s functions. Reading a book, on the other hand, requires the reader to engage intellectually in the experience. i.e. to think, to bring the imagination to the table. The more senses employed, the less the participant has to do and he/she basically becomes a passive subject. The fewer senses employed, the more the participant has to become active to enjoy the experience. The receiver must fill in the missing information. Indeed, that’s a factor in determining good writing from poor writing—the more the writer fills in for the reader, the lower the quality of the material. As Hemingway pointed out, good writing is like an iceberg. Nine-tenths of the iceberg is below the surface and invisible; only one tenth is invisible. A quality novel requires effort on behalf of the reader—a good book is a participatory exercise where both the author and the reader need to do some work.

Some argue that the emergence of hot media is the main factor involved in the “dumbing down of America.” We sit and absorb movies and television and our brains just aren’t engaged much. When we read something, our brains are awakened and engaged or else we don’t get much from the experience. Those who believe that movies and television destroy intellectual activity (I’m in that camp) point out that attention spans and comprehension levels have fallen drastically with the advent of movies and TV and in a direct correlation to their rate of popularity. It’s a solid and fairly scientific argument.

The more society tends toward hot media over cool, the less the intellect is accessed and falls further into disuse.

Hot media are low in audience participation due to their high resolution or definition. Cool media are high in audience participation due to their low definition (the receiver must fill in the missing information).
Which brings us back to… Booktrack.

While whatever I say here will have little or no effect upon the future of soundtracks in books—the genie is out of the bottle and nothing will stuff it back—I’ll at least have the satisfaction of delivering a bit of a warning for some not to embrace it without thought about the consequences.

Booktrack is simply a move toward removing the intellectual factor from the act of reading and making the reading experience “easier.”

It’s instructive to watch the video titled “Booktrack Interview with James Frey” (available at the link provided above), and listen to Brooke Geahan’s remarks as he describes the experience he had, where the “reading itself disappears and he’s transported into the movie” (badly paraphrased, but you’ll see what I mean.). Sounds much like the experience movie-goers have of suspending thought processes during a well-made movie with high production values. Pleasurable experience, for sure… but at what expense? It appears to me that sensory pleasure overrides intellectual pleasure.

Booktrack is absolutely going to become a player in the world of e-books—I don’t see anything holding the tsunami back. But—what will this new world of books going to do to our minds, to our intellectual abilities?

I’m curious as to your thoughts on this… I’m anticipating a lively debate. Probably mirroring the older one over books vs movies… With excellent points on both sides…

Blue skies,

P.S. Before anyone thinks I'm against movies, not so! I go to lots and lots of movies and enjoy many of them. I do read far more books than I view movies however.


Maegan said...

Hi Les,

Here's my opinion in one word:
"A totally immersive experience”… Really? If the book is good—I’m already totally immersed. You could take my children, raze my fields and burn my house to the ground… I’m reading. I don’t need the sound of footsteps to tell me that the protag is climbing the stairs to her doom, I don’t need to hear music to tell me that she’s at a nightclub—I’ve got words in front of my eyes and a brain that functions properly. I'm a big girl, I can do it all by myself. I’ll confess, I didn’t even read your opinion before I started writing this so I’m not even sure where you stand on the subject, but come on—does it really need to be dumbed down that much?

Les Edgerton said...

I agree with you, Maegan. It's going to be popular because the reader has even less to do to enjoy the experience, but that's the point...

The next step is to not have the reader read at all. Just combine audiobooks with Booktrack and the "reader" won't have to do anything...

BTW, I neglected working on your novel to write this... But, I'm on it now! Sorry...

Brian Elsasser said...

Les, You have expressed the opposite of what McLuhan wrote regarding hot and cool media. Television is a cool medium because it involves more than one sense. It is, McLuhan asserted, primarily a tactile medium. Therefore, during the Kennedy-Nixon Debates of 1960, which McLuhan analyzed in detail, Kennedy was more attractive because he was more tactile-exciting. Bushy hair, coarser features, compared to slick Dick Nixon, who came across as very smooth and slippery. In a nut anyway. Television is so tactile because it is so crude visually, compared to movies in which the imagery is much more crisp and in focus. I'll write more later on Book talk. Makes sense James Frey would want a hot distraction from his already hot writing...

Chris said...

Sounds like Booktrack is just an old radio show with sound effects. Am I wrong?

Les Edgerton said...

Chris, good take!

Brian, I based my thoughts on a course I took in 1968 on McLuhan, along with notes I took at a lecture of his I attended in 1970. I went to Wikipedia, hoping to refresh my memory, and the entry wasn't quite accurate--well, it is Wikipedia. Basically, yes, McLuhan did say television was a cooler media than film but he said so because it fit something else he said, that media exist on a continuum--that, yes movies are nearer the top of the hot media, then television, then radio, then literature and so on. Basically, in his lecture, he further amplified it by saying his theory basically states that the more the number of senses involved, the less intellectual element of the participant came into play. Movies and television operate on two senses--sound and images--so they are hotter, while radio operates primarily on one sense, so it is cooler. Dialog is hotter than a book as again, two senses are employed, while reading only employs one sense. That's the only point I wanted to make--that the more senses involved, the less the person had to do intellectually to enjoy the experience.

Also, I know he differentiated between TV and movies, but
that was in a day when TV was far cruder a media than it is today, and the distinctions between them have blurred somewhat, I submit.

And, I ALWAYS get the cool and hot definitions mixed up! My bad. But, it's been over 50 years since I heard him speak, so perhaps I can be forgiven...

Brian Elsasser said...

Great comment, Les. I had a professor who lectured on McLuhan and showed us a couple of videos (with crude resolution) of McLuhan lecturing. One thing I remember we discussed was "sense ratios." That different media brought different senses to the fore, people used them more. Television, to McLuhan, was a tactile experience because, as you point out, it was so crude visually. But the tactile sense is much more inclusive than sight. We use touch to tell the difference between hot and cold, rough and smooth, etc. It is a far more "involving" of a sense. So when looking at images of Kennedy during the debates, where he looked incomplete, people wanted to engage their minds (excited by the "tactile" stimulus) and "fill in the blank." Whereas with one glance they could tell Nixon was...a used car salesman! So tv is cool because it encourages involvement. Radio is hot because it short-circuits the usual sense ratio, accentuating hearing. McLuhan went into some detail about how Hitler used radio in the 1930s to arouse the German tribal emotions and get his listeners motivated. Because radio was hot it heated them up, he said or something like that. What McLuhan would have to say about BookTrack makes me curious. An internet computer screen seems like it should be cool...but through it would be broadcast "hot" radiolike stimuli...gotta read more on that. Thanks, Brian

Les Edgerton said...

Great comments, Brian. Wonder if we went to the same school--I went to Indiana University and it was there I had the class and lecture back in the late sixties.

Basically, as you know,I'm just using his theories in a basic way--that the more senses that are involved, the less the individual's mind comes into play, and Booktrack, by adding sound to sight, imo, just reduces the intellectual participation as another case where we act the part of passive subjects and don't stir the brain cells around as much. I know I'll check it out and probably even enjoy the experience. But... at what cost? That's my concern and question.

Was it Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL where the scene where Woody's in line at the movie and discussing McLuhan and he's behind them in line and steps up to lend his input to the discussion? I think that's the right movie.

Les Edgerton said...

Also, with what he had to say about Hitler, I wonder if he ever commented on Roosevelt and his Fireside Chats and convinced the public to side with him on his socialism projects.

Brian Elsasser said...

Sorta synergistic, almost. I went to Michigan State from '79 to '81. The professor I mentioned before was teaching a class on Modern Literary Criticism, but said it was "natural" to speak of McLuhan in that context, who had, as you know, extensively on the English Romantic Poets. Probably one of the greatest critical minds of his generation, who noticed that his students' minds seemed to be evolving, even before television. His book I remember discussing on warm afternoons and not nodding off was of course The Medium is the Massage. I remember one of the quotes the professor wrote on the blackboard to this day:
"Mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth." Which could be applied to a lot of what we experience mediawise these days.
Good luck with Booktrack, let us know how it goes.
PS: I tried reading James Frey, but a friend who went through rehab dissected some of the worst, and then he went on Oprah and bared his prevaricating soul, haha. I felt vindicated for my laziness in giving up on his dense prose. Now I understand he has a whole stable of hungry young writers "polishing" his new stuff.

Les Edgerton said...

Agree with you on Frey! Actually, before he confessed to fabricating his memoir, I started to read it and just couldn't get through it. Just not a likable style or interesting style, imo, which surprised me as I really did (and still do) like his writer's how-tos. I had the same reaction as you--just too dense. And, his use of millions of ellipses made me think he was trying to rechannel Balzac... What's the word? Oh, yeah... pretentious.

And, sorry, Brian--we don't mention MSU around my house--we're huge ND fans... However, I remember like yesterday watching the best game ever in college football history--the 1966 10-10 tie (and I know what you'll say about that!:) When I was a teen, we used to to up to East Lansing for the babes. They had five colleges in town and in the early sixties they all used to hitchhike and it was easy meeting them. Great, great town!