Books | Shelf Life

What is a Vook and will it change how you read?

vook_l

vook_lIs a Vook:

A)   An endangered bird

B)   What you hear when Zsa Zsa Gabor curses you out

C)   The latest development in digital reading

D)   None of the above

E)   All of the above (including ‘None of the above’)

If you chose A, B, or D you are incorrect. If you chose E, you created an impossible paradox that threatens to shred the universe to tatters. But if you chose C, DING! DING! DING! You win a prize! Namely, I drop this tired ‘Multiple Choice’ format and just tell you what the heck a Vook is.

Well, the answer’s in the name: Video+Book=Vook. (The math checks out.) Clips of a few minutes in length are embedded into the text of an e-book to create a multimedia experience. The videos can accompany the text or advance the plot themselves, and they are produced exclusively for each title. Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, is releasing four vooks (two nonfiction, two fiction) today for purchase online or for the iPhone. Atria has developed the project with the San Francisco-based startup that originally conceptualized the format, and it hopes the Vook will become the go-to medium for subway riders and waiting-room attendees everywhere. So how does it stack up: Is it Kindle or kindling? I took a test run.

On the positive side, the configuration feels intuitive and easy to use. You can just read, just watch, or read and watch simultaneously, a task that takes a bit of getting used to even for my YouTube-trained brain. The format definitely lends itself better to certain types of books than others. Probably the most effective of the four inaugural titles is Return to Beauty by aesthetician Narine Nikogosian, a straightforward how-to manual for making your own mango moisturizers, white bean and olive oil face masks, and prime rib au jus body scrubs. (All right, I made up that last one.) The video demonstrations that punctuate the manual seem pretty helpful, particularly on something as portable as an iPhone. And all that kitchen cosmetology really makes me think that this layout would be perfect for cookbooks (or cookvooks, if you will). An easily navigable Food Network right on your countertop. I could see instructional, or even self-help, vooks as a totally viable alternative to trying to re-tar your roof with a book in one hand, a laptop in the other, and a TiVo-ed This Old House playing somewhere downstairs.

<embed src=”http://widgets.vodpod.com/w/video_embed/Groupvideo.3545434” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” AllowScriptAccess=”sameDomain” pluginspage=”http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer” wmode=”transparent” flashvars=” width=”425” height=”350” />

Sadly, the fiction titles don’t work quite as well. The first, a Jude Deveraux romance set in 19th-century South Carolina, tries to use video clips to provide atmosphere, with fluttering shots of cernuous willows and Southern manses set to the book’s narration. But since the text was produced separately from the videos, the clips feel a little redundant and even distracting.

The other novella, a thriller by Richard Doetsch, does a better job at integrating the two media, and the video’s content actually advances the narrative. Unfortunately, the clips are still too few and far between (and at some points cheesier than a Wisconsin state fair) to make you feel like you are experiencing something especially different or revolutionary. It certainly has potential, but it also has a ways to go before realizing it on the fiction front.

Book purists – or even e-book purists if those exist yet – shouldn’t be afraid of the vook taking the place of their cherished texts anytime soon. Atria and Vook intend it not as a replacement for lying on the beach with a Crichton or a Patterson, but as an in-between option, for when your bus is stuck in traffic or your kid’s soccer game goes into overtime. However, its release poses an interesting question nonetheless: Is this the first hole in the dam for our traditional definition of what books are? Can a single medium continue to exist alone in this increasingly multimedia world, or will reading inevitably end up looking less like Gutenberg and more like Google?

What do you think?

Originally posted October 1 2009 — 12:03 PM EDT

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