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Video Books, or Vooks: Do We Need to Watch Books as Well as Read Them?

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And now for some notes from the Cheerful Curmudgeon, a figure I instantly became when reading a recent New York Times story about -- heaven help us -- "vooks." Vooks, in case you don't know, are books that come with supplementary videos to liven up dull old printed text.

The idea is that reading is tiresome -- is, in the words of Times reporter Motoko Rich, "an archaic form of entertainment." This, from a journalist for one of our prime newspapers of record who doesn't indicate she's quoting anyone. She's speaking. She does quote Judith Curr, the publisher of the electronic-geared Simon & Schuster Atria division, as saying, "You just can't be linear anymore with your text."

Reading that remark linearly, I have to admit a desire to drop the second "r" from Curr's surname, but I resist the temptation, because I refuse to be a beetle-browed, archaic curmudgeon but intend to remain cheerful in the face of the inexorable march of time that throws up innovations like vooks and asks us to be serious about them. Truth is, we must be serious about them, because here they are.

Rich quotes others, including Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts child psychology professor, who declares, "There is no question that these new media are going to be superb at engaging and interesting the reader. Can you any longer read Henry James and George Eliot. Do you have the patience?"

Okay, I'll concede that books concerned with, say, fitness, can benefit from video segments. Fitness videos have thrived since the earlier Jane Fonda days. Indeed, you could say, "Release the video and forget the book." The same for books home about home improvement. Sure, Bob Vila has put out books, but for some Vila undertakings, videos suffice. Yes, it makes perfect sense for Robert Darnton, who's published a history of 18-century French street songs, to include the recording of the tunes -- not videos, apparently.

But fiction? Here's what Fred L. Gronvall is quoted in the Times report as having stated in an amazon.com review: "It really makes a story more real if you know what the characters look like. The videos add to the experience in a big way." Hello? Does Gronvall know about descriptive prose? Has he read Charles Dickens? John Updike? A thousand other writers whose descriptions are so detailed and immediate that figures leap up from the page without benefit of video?

(Just a few words here about film adaptations of novels: No question that the visual aid works with something like Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Vivien Leigh brings the spoiled Southern belle to life, but no more so than Mitchell did on the page. The same could be said, for instance, of Audrey Hepburn in the film version of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. The only catch here is that, charming as Hepburn is, she's not the Holly Golightly Capote has written. You wouldn't want Hepburn excerpts incorporated into a Breakfast at Tiffany's vook update. Or, for that matter, Leigh showing up in a video-ized GWTW.)

But let's get back to the comment about patience for a minute. Because the above quote from Professor Wolf is read and not heard (here's an argument for audio cassettes, for any kind of reading aloud), it's difficult to know exactly how she inflected her asking "Do you have the patience?" for major novelists Eliot or James.

Yet, somehow she does seem to be siding with today's in-a-hurry generations. She appears to acknowledge that in the hustle-bustle of our modern world, there just isn't time to devote to the prolix likes of James and Eliot. Trollope, Thackeray? Forget 'em. She even seems to imply that James and Eliot -- had they the foresight -- might have imagined a future in which no one could spend valuable hours with a damn book.

Hogwash, say I, the Cheerful Curmudgeon. Not to say "Hogwarts," which, as everyone knows, is a location in a series of books for which millions have the patience -- and so far no one is clamoring to include video sequences in later Harry Potter editions.

Yessiree, readers do have the patience when they want it, don't they? And I also say, if they don't, they'd better muster it up. Otherwise, they're acquiescing to the dumbed-down trend rampaging through the culture like a California wildfire. It would be a sin -- practically a capital crime -- to write off masterpieces because no one has the patience for the sentences Marcel Proust had the patience to craft so scrupulously.

People used to set great store by the phrase "Patience is a virtue," an observation traced to 1377 and William Langland's Piers Plowman. (Anyone have the patience to read that one anymore?) It would be a shame if nowadays, patience is only a virtue if it comes equipped with video illustrations.