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"While Booktrack may scratch an itch you never knew you had, some believe the introduction of multimedia to the book-reading experience may actually portend a larger cultural shift."

The Daily: September 5, 2011

Sound affects

Not long into Pittacus Lore’s “The Power of Six,” the protagonist, Marina, comes upon two young girls hogging her hotel’s only computers. It’s terribly annoying — “I’m shaking with anger,” she says — but the moment allows for the establishment of a new interactive feature that’s caused a fair bit of controversy in the publishing world of late: music and sound effects that accompany the text.

As the girls fiddle about on the computers, the reader becomes a listener, with the familiar clickety-clack of a keyboard trickling out of the iPad’s speakers.

This is Booktrack, the company that wants to make reading a more immersive experience — for those so inclined.

“Once I tried it, I threw my iPad down and said, ‘Eureka!’ ” Brooke Geahan, Booktrack’s vice president of publishing, told The Daily. “We’re trying to give consumers a different experience, a different choice when it comes to reading.”

You’d never have pegged Geahan as a cheerleader for the current electronic book revolution. She used to run a library — some might say shrine — dedicated to the preservation of old, paper books. That she became a Booktrack convert, and vice president of publishing no less, should go some way in detailing just how prominent the company could become.

Booktrack, which got its start three years ago with the help of PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, aims to create “synchronized soundtracks for e-books that dramatically boost the reader’s imagination and engagement,” according to the company’s website.

Available as a free iPad and iPhone app, readers can buy and download any of several books, including “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” “Rikki Tikki-Tavi,” and “The Power of Six,” a science fiction novel released last week whose Booktrack soundtrack was produced by Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post production studios. A downloadable Salman Rushdie short story is due this fall.

The app “learns” your reading speed so that the music and sound effects — original compositions funded by Booktrack — stay in sync with reading progress. Users can customize the experience: ambient noise, sound effects, and music can all be turned on or off or have their volume adjusted.

“We’re bringing sound to text across all genres,” said Geahan. “We’re looking for books that would appeal to people who are already used to reading e-books, or reading on tablets.”

But while Booktrack may scratch an itch you never knew you had, some believe the introduction of multimedia to the book-reading experience may actually portend a larger cultural shift.

We could be looking at the “emergence of a whole new art form,” Tom Zoellner, author of “The Heartless Stone and Uranium” and a professor of English at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., told The Daily. Just as opera was the marriage of music and story, Zoellner reasoned, Booktrack could be seen as the marriage of literature and music, something that was first attempted with Samuel Barber’s 1948 “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” voice and orchestra work.

Additionally, the introduction of music to literature, said Zoellner, could force publishers to confront something they may not have even considered: how it affects the ethics of the author-reader relationship.

“Music is a mood-setter,” said Zoellner. “It’s fairy dust.” Is it ethical to include music and sound effects in nonfiction? If so, should publishers have to explain the origin of all this fairy dust? Should a history of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge include machine-gun sounds produced in a studio thousands of miles from the Ardennes?

Still, raising legitimate questions doesn’t mean Zoellner isn’t receptive to the idea itself.

“We never turn off our other senses when we read,” he said. “There’s always the scent of your coffee. It’s an exciting development because many writers listen to music as they write.”

What would perhaps be even more interesting, said Zoellner, would be to ask authors, “What was on your iPod when you were writing this?”

Lev Grossman, whose latest novel, “The Magician King,” the sequel to 2009’s New York Times bestselling novel “The Magicians,” was published last month, remains skeptical.

“One of the reasons why I love books is they help me concentrate,” he said. “Books are a machine for focusing my mind.” The introduction of music and sound effects,” said Grossman, “could prove to be a distraction.”

“Books actually give you very little data to work with,” he added. “They ask you to fill in a lot.” By supplying a ready-made, carbon-copy experience, something may be lost in the process, he argued.

Grossman said that, if approached by Booktrack or any similar service, he’d “probably opt out.”

“It all sounds a bit weird and a bit gimmicky” he said. Mixing music and reading may appeal to some people, he argued, but that doesn’t it makes sense. “It’s not a wine pairing.”