A few weeks ago I mentioned the enhanced edition of Chaos: The Making of a New Science by James Gleick.
Now, I love the original book. I first read it back in 1989, I think. That was a paperback, which I picked up because it had the following quote from Douglas Adams on the front:
“An awe-inpiring book. Reading Chaos gave me the sensation that someone had just found the light switch”
That sums it up very well. I’ve no desire to get all stern-faced and pompous here, but that book changed my understanding of how the world works. It still amazes me how many supposed experts – I’m looking at you, economic pundits of the past few years – still don’t understand what this book has to say. I think it’s a terrible thing that chaos is not taught as part of high school maths. Chaos, in other words, gets the thumbs up from me. It’s a great book.
But how well has it been ‘enhanced’? You may remember from my previous post that the book begins with this impressive little video:
Pretty nice, huh? But how much video is there in the rest of the book, and how does it ‘enhance’ the text?
Well, there are just six more videos throughout the remaining 380 pages (paperback equivalent), each on average less than a minute long.
As you’ve paid a fiver extra to get this video (£11.99 versus the £6.99 ‘non-enhanced’ version in the iBookstore), that’s pretty rubbish.
Each of these videos explains a different concept with motion graphics and a voiceover. The script of the voiceover is largely taken from the main text, so it’s either what you’ve just read or what you’re just about to read. The effect of this is to highlight how these 6 videos have just been slapped on top of an existing product, rather than integrated more fully into it.
This is a real shame because this book should really benefit from the relevant speeds of video and text in communicating information. In some (possibly most) circumstances video is the slower medium, hence we expect film adaptations to cut out large chunks of the novels they are based on. In this subject, though, video can get concepts such as the Mandlebrot set across far quicker than prose. But this benefit is lost, though, when video is just sprinkled on top of the text, and the text is still expected to do the heavy lifting. The text never discusses the videos that the reader has just been shown, or even acknowledges that they exist.
Indeed, in the original paper version there were some colour plates in the middle which contained a series of stills of images taken from a movie of the Mandlebrot set. Bizarrely, those stills are still included here, and they are still in the middle of the book. No effort has been made to move them to a more suitable part of the text or make them relevant to the new format. It’s as clear an indication as any as to how cosmetic the ‘enhancements’ are.
What we learn from this enhanced edition is that, if we’re to add video to non-fiction, then the text needs to be written around the video as much as the video needs to support the text. This will no doubt give publishers a hot flush, for we’re talking about a different version of the text to the non-enhanced version.
But there is an existing model that might be useful to think about here. Consider the tie-in book for a large budget television series. I’m talking about the type of documentary series where Prof. Brian Cox enigmatically stands alone among 1080p mountains whilst the Cosmos explodes above him – you know the sort of thing. Both the series and the book contain the same information (more or less). But the book does not contain the documentary script, nor does Prof Cox stand on his mountain and read out the book. The research that went into that series has been written up twice, and shaped for each of the different media.
Enhanced non-fiction book apps that contain video (and ideally, interactive elements to play with, something that would have been very welcome here) are going to be prestige, big budget productions. They are most likely going to be linked to big names and television exposure. We can imagine how the research and filming of these big BBC or Discovery series could be used to create three separate versions – the TV series, the tie-in book, and the book app. Each would get the same information across according to the strengths of their own media.
In this scenario, enhanced books are going to be very rewarding. It is possible to imagine how the enhanced book app would be the premier version, combining the strengths of both the TV series and the book with interactivity. That, I think, is going to be where these are heading.
As for Gleick’s Chaos, it’s still as brilliant as it ever was. But the enhanced version is no more brilliant than the non-enhanced version and, unless the price difference is removed, I have to say that the normal version is the better buy.