The book, that venerable handmaiden of Western thought, has had a lot of work done these past few years, and the latest technology startup trying its hand at giving her an extreme makeover is Booktrack. Launched Aug. 25, Booktrack creates soundtracks for e-books, using exclusive technology that detects individual reading speeds and synchronizes sound to text, line by line. The technology is currently available for e-books on iPhones and iPads.
To get a sense of what Booktrack does, imagine if the ashram scenes of Eat Pray Love were accompanied by yogic chanting, or if you could hear the wet percussion of harpoons piercing whale flesh as you read Moby Dick.
Some would call it revolutionary; others, tacky and distracting. So far, founders Paul and Mark Cameron have managed to convince some powerful people that it could be the former. Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, is a financial backer, and Mark D'Arcy, director of global creative solutions for Facebook, is on the board. This September and October, short stories by Salman Rushdie and Jay McInerney will be released in Booktrack format.
'A Completely New Genre'
The Camerons are by no means the first to use music to help words sing. Way before Guttenberg's day, music was an essential part of literary traditions such as Greek tragedy and lyric poetry. More recently, everyone from playwrights to opera composers to publishers selling book-CD packages have integrated the two art forms.
The Camerons, however, insist that they're doing something new. "To have audio that perfectly matches the text changes the whole experience of reading," Mark Cameron says. "It's a completely new genre." He came up with the idea for Booktrack while working as a physical therapist in Hong Kong, where he read while listening to his iPod every day during his commute.
"We're doing this because we love reading," said a beaming Paul Cameron. "It's our passion."
The Camerons aren't publishing insiders. Originally from New Zealand, the brothers moved to New York this year to bring what they believe will be a revolution in reading to the world's publishing headquarters. They hired industry veteran Brooke Geahan as vice president of publishing and communications to help market their product to authors and publishers.
Words First, Sounds Second
Convincing print traditionalists that books need another revolution hasn't been easy. Many remain skeptical not only about the product's execution but also its underlying goal -- transforming the age-old reading experience. Wired magazine's Charlie Sorrel called Booktrack "incredibly jarring" in a review last week.
"The beauty of a book is that the whole world is as real as you can imagine it to be," he wrote. "Adding tawdry effects doesn't enhance the experience -- it just makes the whole thing seem fake."
The Booktrack team, which has spent three years developing algorithms that detect reading speed, insists that their product works so smoothly that most readers are converts after a single chapter. Booktrack readers can also customize audio to their liking, they point out, adjusting the volumes and frequencies of the musical score, background noise, and ambient sounds.
"You're very aware of [the sound] in the beginning. Then it just helps you get into the story more," Paul Cameron says. "It's a reading experience first and a listening experience second."
Still, even if one learns to enjoy the sound effects, a Booktrack leaves less up to readers' imaginations than standard paper or e-books. Listening to dramatic crescendos and alien ships landing as one reads The Power of Six, James Frey's latest fantasy novel, it's difficult to remove oneself from the narrative and think about the words on the page. The experience is more cinematic than poetic, though that feels appropriate for a book like Frey's.
But for a different kind of work, Booktrack could end up dictating to readers how to think about passages, rather than leaving them open to interpretation. It's hard to contemplate whether a tragic phrase might have a subtly sardonic twist when violins are warbling in your ears.
Geahan says that the team addresses the complexity of meaning in books by meticulously selecting the right kind of sounds. Different genres of music and types of composers are considered for each work. Authors then work closely with the team to help communicate their original vision. Rushdie, for example, collaborated with composer John Psathas on the score for his short story In the South, sending him comments and clips of traditional Indian music for inspiration. The score was eventually recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
"[In the South] is a very different soundscape than The Power of Six," Geahan points out. "Yet again, it is cinematic, though this isn't necessarily a bad thing."
Of course, dead authors like Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas can't collaborate with Booktrack composers. For re-releases of classic works, the team researches author biographies and historical periods to create realistic sounds. For The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, they tracked down the sound of a 19th-century London doorbell after realizing a buzzer sounded odd.
Anyone Remember Aromarama?
Though humble about their capacity to alter the meanings of texts, the team at Booktrack does hope to shake up the publishing industry. According to Geahan, publishers have been waiting for this kind of technology. "It's a way for them to refashion the content they're sitting on," she says.
As with all new technologies, it's hard to say to what extent idealistic goals will materialize. In a hundred years, synesthetic start-ups like Booktrack could be as obsolete and forgotten as "Aromarama" and "Smell-o-vision" -- technologies that piped odors into 1960s-era movie theaters so that viewers could smell what was on screen.
Or, books without soundtracks could some day seem quaint as silent movies. Paul Cameron, for one, is hopeful. "I think a year from now it will be common-place to see people reading Booktracks on the subways, on holiday, by the pool," he says.
"We've even heard authors say that when they write from now on, they will think about Booktrack," he says. "It will influence what you want to write."