When it comes to literature in digital media there is a lot going on – and especially for kids the playing field is fascinating. But that should come as no surprise since kids really are like sponges and much of the technology seems to be very intuitively adapted for point and play mode. YouTube has been overflowed with different kids playing iPads * taken and encouraged by proud parents (mostly dads) – and it is quite fascinating to see how quickly they pick up on the choices at hand, but I will not dare try to go into the debate on the cognitive benefits and learning curves. Suffice to say that the interactive literature the technology enables often seems to be targeted at children and young adults. Maybe it’s because the combination of reading with the rest of your sensory system is often thought of as a pedagogical tool for learning and when you are an adult the ideology becomes that you read not to learn but to reaffirm or contest what you have previously learned.
My latest encounter with interactive fiction is the wonderful world of Mr. Morris Lessmore (alas, only second-hand, as I have no iPad). I would love to hear from others who have actually tried it, from what I can gather it seems quite interesting.
“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” is a short film and app by Moonbot Studios (although of course, the film is only available in US iTunes godblastit) and created through a combination of stop motion, 2D and miniature. Just like other narrated apps Morris Lessmore gives you different possibilities to explore like repairing books and flying through a world of words etc. It is literature in game play – however, the Morris Lessmore website says it ‘reinvents digital storytelling’, which I would call a smart-ass sales pitch, because from what I can gather the app stands on the shoulders of and joins in on the same track as other lit-apps before them. Think of “Alice in Wonderland” for example, restricted as it may have been in relation to Morris Lessmore, but still, reinvention is a big word.
And “Heart and the Bottle”, which seems to have gone in the same direction. Children’s literature publishers with a little money on the side and a tech-team must be having a literary orgasm at the new possibilities for increased revenues, since they now have the ability to take back some of the audience that was swiped away with TV and the internet.
The point I am trying to make with regards to literature is that full-blown creativity in play with the electronic devices seems much more fun and acceptable when you are working with children’s literature. There is the glorified goal of literacy ahead when it comes to kids, but what about adults? One need only think of the grown up solution, which is the e-book: talk about snoozefest. But when you think about it, there really is a world of possibilities for adult literature. In lieu of physical dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and notebooks you can combine all those things with image, video and audio supplements and make reading a multi-sensory event, just as one was used to as a kid. It’s not reading for slow learners or laziness – its common sense that incorporating several senses when taking in new information helps with the comprehension of said information. It’s sort of egomaniacal to think that all the required knowledge of a topic can be found in one book. Instead you could take informed reading to a whole new level. Is it very far off to read say Oksanen’s Purgeand get the historical background to Estonia, and its relationship to Soviet Russia, as well as extra material like interviews with Oksanen, an audio track to the Estonian and Russian words that the novel is laced with, and other information that could attach the narrative to the world and current events?
Some time ago I saw IDEO’s innovation video called “Future of the Book”, where they have ‘created’ three scenarios for the digital book: Nelson, Coupland and Alice. Three ways of gathering, reading and using information, literature etc. And I really hope that author’s as well as agents, publishers and sellers will embrace the idea of broadening the field of literature, so that the e-book can be supplemented with other tactile experiments and possibilities. I know a lot of people who deal with literature are cautious when it comes to all the gadgety tools that are moving in on their turf, many of whom don’t want literature to lose its elevated state and become one of many consumer product to the masses. But if you think about one or two of literature’s maxims ‘to make new’ or ‘to inform’, i.e. to push people’s boundaries of the already known, one would think that the implementation of other art forms and tools would be welcomed. I think it would be exciting to read a novel or poetry that did not solely rely on the normative style of reading but dared include other ways of telling narratives. A sort of fusion art. And instead of scaring off the literati with rallying cries that mark ‘the death of the book’, ‘dumbing down the contemporary readership’, and introducing ‘zapper cultures’, maybe we should let a little of our inquisitive nature take hold and explore new options for literature. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a stagnant art is a dead art… or did somebody else say that?
* And other electronic devices, I’m sorry for singling out the iPad, it’s not the only choice out there.