Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Kit Reed: Why I Can’t Learn to Love the Vook, or: The Uses of Imagination

By Eric Banks

Here’s former NBCC board member Kit Reed on the vook:

Oh goody, now we’re invited to “read”—or is it experience—the vook, which may be fine if, for instance, a person really needs to click on a hot link in an e-book and watch videos of yoga instead of getting down on the floor in front of the DVD or, better, an instructor.

The snazzy new hybrid is a spinoff from technology that includes hot links to everything except, perhaps, a scratch and sniff panel. Click on a hot link in whatever vook you’re reading and, voila, you can access maps, necessary or unnecessary references or MP3s of apposite mood music to enhance your experience, and, coming soon: interactive Build-a-Bear endings for the capricious and, wow, if you want, you don’t have to read at all.
You can sit back and watch crucial scenes unfold on video!

Don’t know about you, but as a compulsive reader who should be writing, I’ve spent too much time in cyberspace—interacting, thank you, details below—to give this one a tumble.

When a novel is doing its job, readers can walk into its many rooms and inhabit them. They’ll explore the territory with the characters. Novelists who work from character know how to put readers inside their characters’ heads, so we see what they see and feel what they feel in a little miracle of total immersion.

Like a dreamer whose dreams unfold in all the same places, my mate sets key scenes in whatever novel he’s reading in houses and landscapes he knew as a kid. As reader, I may build sets in my head but more important, I become the central character, see what he sees, know what she knows. Writing, I do the same thing. Although my characters’ compulsions are peculiar to them and they often do things I’d never do, I become them, until I walk away at the end of the novel. And, a character’s looks? I suggest, but leave the rest to the reader, for reasons.

Much of what we see and feel, or imagine we are feeling when we read, depends on what the writer chooses to show us. Like painters, most novelists prefer not to swamp readers, making them wade through stultifying detail to get to the point. They select and suggest, so the reader gets there intuitively. With the right lines, they create settings and complex inner landscapes, conjure up storms and summon emotional tidal waves.

The rest goes on inside our heads, and that miracle of immersion demands unbroken concentration.

Do we really want video to bring us down?

My long life in cyberspace tells me: no. For fifteen years I’ve had a character on LambdaMOO, a once enormous text-based virtual community where live, real-time conversation scrolled up the screen nonstop. I got to know people, not by what they looked like, but by what they had to say.

At the urging of a university tech guru, I checked out a visual-virtual environment called, as I remember it, “The Palace.” As with its visual-virtual successors, like Second Life, I had to choose an avatar. Let’s see, did I really want to look like early Schwarzenegger? A cowboy? Siren? Not so much. Nor did I want to post a flattering snapshot. Typing as RedWriter, I wanted to be who I am, whether or not my other friends on LambdaMOO could see me.
Did I really want to play-act in tacky stage sets drawn by a nameless artist, or would I rather move through potentially endless rooms created by a few lines of text and my own imagination?

Given a choice between visual-virtual environments limited by other people’s ideas, I chose the text-based territory of the imagination. Enjoying a novel is, like writing one, a function of the imagination, and the vook?

No sale. And I’m not sorry.