lone ranger.jpgEnhanced ebooks, TV, videos, video games all share a common feature — they stifle imagination and creativity. Enhanced ebooks have a proper role to play in educating people, but perhaps not in educating the very young.

OK, I admit I’m old and that I can remember back to the birth of television, when The Lone Ranger was the hot show. And I can remember picking up a book and letting the words create a picture in my mind. These pictures were born from my understanding of what the words meant. Authors had to create worlds in writing that could be recreated by me. When Robin Hood described Maid Marian, I recreated her in my mind. One day she could be as short as me, the next twice my height. As I grew and aged, so did my mental picture of Maid Marian — all because as I experienced life and gained new insights into my world, I could apply those insights – via my imagination — to Maid Marian and to Robin Hood.

Alas, I fear that “enhanced” ebooks will take away the last bastion of imagination. We already know that videos and movies hurt the imaginative process. We watch a movie and we no longer have to imagine the effect of a sword thrust through the chest — it is given to us graphically. We do not have to imagine what happens when a soldier picks up a live grenade and it explodes — the movie tells us clearly. Avatar left nothing for the viewer to self-create, which may be why it was so successful. We do not have to imagine because someone else has already imagined for us. How many of us had one picture of Robin Hood — a picture we created via our imagination when we first read the book — that was supplanted by Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood after we saw the movie in our youth?

Books — especially books for the preadolescent child – are the last bastion of imagination. When an author describes the heroine, we need to close our eyes and create that picture. We exercise our cognitive abilities. If the author describes a sword thrust to the chest, we imagine it within the limits of our experience and within the limits of our tolerance. These limitations, however, do not exist when we see the result displayed visually in a movie with ever increasing explicitness. (Do I really need to see the intestines falling out of a belly wound? Does it really add to the movie’s value?)

What made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so great? For those who read the books as children, it was the ability to create from Tolkien’s words the world of the hobbits and elves and other characters. We could create our own Gollum. Now, assuming someone actually reads the books after having seen the Peter Jackson interpretation, is the reader likely to create his or her own world based on Tolkien’s words or will they simply picture Jackson’s visuals? My experience suggests the latter. Will this not also be a problem for future Harry Potter fans? Won’t future readers conjure up Harry, Ron, and Hermione as the three stars of the movies?

Maybe this doesn’t matter for someone of my age, although I would like to think it does. (They do say that exercising the mind’s thinking processes is the most important thing one can do to thwart memory loss in old age.) But certainly it matters for the young who already face a dearth of opportunities to exercise their imagination. (Remember when the broomstick was your horse and it was your imagination that made it so? Now the broomstick looks like a horse?) Schools are test preparers and have no time to coddle imagination. Parents too often think quality time with their children is watching TV or playing a video game — imagination-numbing activities — rather than reading a book or playing a board game that requires thinking.

It isn’t that enhanced ebooks don’t have a proper place or role; they do. A biology text with video would be useful and probably enhance understanding. But I’m not convinced that enhanced fiction or non-science, -technical, or -math nonfiction ebooks are good for learners, especially young learners as a general proposition (there will always be exceptions to every rule).

I am particularly worried that enhanced ebooks will supplant the parental role with the very young, as TV and videos and video games do. Just as parents often turn to TV, videos, and video games to babysit their 3-year-old child, they may turn to enhanced ebooks. At least one bastion of creativity and imagination should be preserved. Parents need to spend more time with their children, especially in the preadolescent years, and that time should be encouraging use of the childrens’ imagination and brain power, not letting someone else’s imagination rule them.

What prompts my concern? A large-scale, long-running Canadian study that was reported in many U.S. newspapers and on the New York Times Health blog. The study didn’t address issues of imagination, but it seems to me that just as TV robs “effort control” skills, it also robs creative skills. In today’s hard-to-get-ahead world that often requires both parents to work just to keep from drowning, it is foolhardy to rely solely on parents to do what is right and necessary. (How many parents do you know who would be willing to cancel their cable TV so that they aren’t tempted to use TV as a babysitter? How many young children have their own cell phones?)

Publishers of ebooks need to step up to the plate and recognize that they do have a social responsibility. Today’s young are tomorrows’ readers and writers, both of which publishers will need. Rather than rushing everything possible to “enhanced ebook” status in hopes of propping up revenues, publishers should look to the their own future: If they cannot instill the desire to read in the young, they will have no future readers to sell books to.

Editor’s Note: the above is reprinted, with permission, from Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog. PB


  1. Just wondering — did you never read, or have read to you, an illustrated children’s book? Did you never read a book with illustrations? And do you include movies in your list of media destroying the imagination?

    If we look at this issue abstractly, we must say that what fosters imagination is what the art form abstracts or leaves out. So long as anything is left out, or is sufficiently abstracted, there’s room for the imagination of the audience/reader, and it can be said to foster imagination.

    Thus comics foster imagination more than TV or movies. So long as there is any text whatsoever in an enhanced ebook, there’s still room for imagination. Even TV leaves a lot out: the audience can see and hear, but they cannot feel or smell or taste — these are all left for one’s imagination to expand.

    In that light, might we also add that ‘living in reality’ is what really destroys the imagination?

    — asotir

  2. I think there will always be “fear of the new”.

    No matter what superfluous fancy words slathered in sensible sounding logic or philosophical pontification in extreme can be drawn into these discussions the argument always seems to boil down to “someone or something different is wrong or bad and will hurt us”.

    I tend to look at those “doom & gloom” arguments as alarmist unless there is actual scientific proof and not lazy juxtaposing which generally takes time and real research.

  3. I’d prefer to recast the argument not against the negatives of things like movies, plays, pen and ink illustrations, etc., but rather in favor of the pure word. I have relatively little interest in fiction books equipped with ‘enhancements’ because I enjoy reading and enjoy allowing my own imagination to create characters, the sound of dialogue, the cutting winter wind, etc. For others, mileage may vary. So be it.

    I believe there’s a larger agenda behind ‘enhanced’ books, however. The enhancements are expensive and require specialized skills. For small publishers (let alone individual authors), creating these ‘enhancements’ will either be impossible or, at best, result in a dramatic reduction in our output (We publish one book a month. If hundreds of hours of video were also required, we simply couldn’t do this). So, if enhancements become standard, the book industry will look more like the movie industry with a small number of very expensive projects dominating the entire field.

    If this is what readers really want, we’ll have no choice but to respond or be left behind. Like Rich, I hope that most readers want to…read.

    Rob Preece

  4. “Enhanced ebooks” is actually looking the wrong way at the situation… it’s like adding a theatre performance to a program book. For this reason, I don’t expect enhanced ebooks, IOW ebooks with multimedia and links added to them, to become practical… instead, multimedia and web presentations will supply ebooks AS the enhancement.

    That said, I don’t see those extended enhancements taking away imagination, they simply open users to apply other avenues of imagination. When I was a kid, I watched the Lone Ranger too. But when the show was over, I could use my imagination to pretend I was the Lone Ranger or Tonto, and act out my own scenarios. And I didn’t dwell over whether or not I bore any resemblance to the guy on the TV screen.

  5. What we see is more and more choice at every level of society. Some of those choices will promote laziness and some people will make those choices over those that require work for the obvious reasons.

    Enhanced books will offer easy choices where students will watch videos, for example, rather than learn about a topic that the video is only meant to illustrate.

    We can’t force a student to work hard by artificially limiting choices. Instead, we have to require them to learn and teach them how to learn and succeed. This will require all our teachers’ skills and parents’ support. Videos and other enhancements have their place in this but solving the education problems is a lot harder than taking the easy choice of ruling out technology from education.

  6. I think imagination has already be stripped away from the 21st century. Look at the glut of just awful, self-indulgent “memoirs” by 30-year-olds that is so popular instead of fiction.

    I think tweeting and chatting, the predominance of short, grammarless blurbs abt nothing also add up to making people focused on meaninglessness.

    I’m sure many people will love these non-books full of flash and bright lights. I think it retards mental development and causes people to return to infantile obsession with pretty colors and such.

    For me, it’s like the clauses in my contracts that my novels can never be “adapted” for the theater *shudder*. Those of us that write novels that are novels and not meant to glitter and flash, can just include clauses in a contracts to stop this sort of thing if we don’t like it.

  7. I love books, and I get quite annoyed by bad spelling and grammar myself, but man, some of the comments here make me scratch my head. What do memoirs by 30 year olds have to do with the price of tea in China?And why insult your prospective audiences, Mr. Ludd(ite)?

    Movies have been around for a century; live theater a couple of millenia more than that. Too newfangled?

    Also, what everyone seems to forget is that reading for pleasure is a rather new thing in human history as well.

    There is a case to be made that we are all suffering from information overload, and that the Internet contributes to that… But can’t we discuss without sounding like completely grumpy old people?

  8. PS – I do let my kid watch some TV and play games on my iPhone. I also make sure she spends a lot of time outside. Kiddo can pick up a pinecone and make it into a toy with a personality. She has conversations with her bath toys. I think her imagination is just fine.

  9. Enhanced books do not have to paint imagination-limiting images of fictional characters, but they can be very helpful in helping you understand the real places, historical periods and social contexts in which they exist. They can allow you to hear the music they hear and sketch out on maps the journeys they take. We offer all of this, and more, at http://www.bookdrum.com, and I urge you to take a look at the positive possibilities of the enhanced book.

  10. I wouldn’t worry so much about that. Videos are a pain to watch. I tried reading the free Sherlock Holmes vook on my ipad. I can’t imagine an instance where the extra video enhances the experience.

    But for nonfiction, sure…The thing is, it’s tedious to have to browse through multimedia.

    Let me tell you one secret from my days as a technical writer. Multimedia should be used sparingly (and only when it can convey the information better than the usual ways).People say they want web demos/animation/sound, but not instead of the original text.

    I’m overjoyed that technology makes these kinds of books possible. But aside from cinema criticism books and software manuals, the need for multimedia is vastly overestimated.

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