Books With Soundtracks: The Future of Reading?

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The new website Booktrack is one of many recent attempts to combine music and literature

There is a long-held belief about cinema: "There never was a silent film." From the early days, when moving images fascinated viewers in their mute spectacle, musical accompaniment drowned out the incessant whirring of the projector machine. Sound brought cinema's haunting figures into being, amplifying their moods and heightening the intensity of the action.

Reading, however, is silent by design. Unless readers add their own accompaniment. On any given public transit commute, one might find an audience of readers trying to do just that, headphones in, books open, providing soundtracks to literature. Mark Cameron noticed this on his daily ferry rides, and as he selected his own music-reading pairings, found himself choosing songs that emotionally corresponded to the words on the page. When he told his brother, the two started cooking up an idea for "a more cinematic-type experience" for reading, says Paul Cameron, who is now the CEO of the company they co-founded, Booktrack.

Over the course of about three years, the Cameron brothers set up a service to provide movie-like soundtracks for digital books, five of which are available now for download onto an iPhone or iPad. More titles will appear on Booktrack's virtual shelves in the coming weeks and months, and will eventually be accessible for Android, computers, and other e-reading devices. They'll be offering selected titles for free, but most will cost between $1 and $4.

Hundreds of files, each tagged with different categories of sound, are combined into a mix that accompanies books and short stories. The first full novel they released, The Power of Six, comes with over 70 original scores, ambient noise, and sound effects.

It takes about six weeks to produce the nine hour-long track for a typical book. Booktrack has a small in-house team, but the bulk of the labor is done at outside production companies like Park Road Post, which has won Academy Awards for sound mixing. Creative designers read each book and determine what music and sounds should be used, and where. It all comes together with a composer, an audio technician, and sometimes, a sound producer. Cameron said it was only natural to seek out sound experts from the film industry, and they try to work with writers when they can. The company is also preparing to publish Salman Rusdie's short story, "In the South," with a soundtrack developed out of conversations between the author and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Booktrack hopes to create soundtracks for biographies, history books, textbooks—"Sort of the gamut," says Booktrack's VP of Publishing, Brooke Geahan. "We see the opportunity being limitless." She and Cameron pointed to a study they commissioned from Liel Leibovitz, a visiting assistant professor of communications at NYU, who found "significant cognitive advantages to sound-enhanced reading," compared with standard e-reading.

"It's almost like having your own personal conductor directing you as you're reading," Cameron explained.

This is both a thrilling prospect and a frustrating one. The sound is linked to the line of text for which it was composed, and as I begin reading a Sherlock Holmes mystery on my iPhone, an arrow in the right-hand margin slides down before my eyes can follow. I tap on the arrow, which is supposed to adjust the music to my reading pace, but from time to time it skips and the sound switches suddenly from a synth to a doorbell. If I turn back a page, it's like rewinding to an earlier spot on a record track.

After a bit of getting used to, the track flows relatively seamlessly. More than anything, it reminds me of a video game soundtrack. Violins play simple melodies on a repeated loop, interrupted at intervals by the atmospheric sounds of my location in the story—a fireplace, a clock.

"I honestly think Arthur Conan Doyle would have loved this," says Geahan.

The Power of Six has an eerier soundtrack, which suits this young adult sci-fi novel. As I read on, I begin to find myself immersed in the action as it's played out in the music, the hum of rain, and footsteps. If I read ahead of the track, I pause and listen. I wonder what might have played through my head had I read in silence.

The conventions of film sound-tracking will be Booktrack's challenges too: "Being heard without really being heard. And contributing to the mood without overtaking the experience," says Daniel Goldmark, editor of Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema.

Booktrack's creators aren't the first to tailor music to literature, particularly as the two media have become increasingly compatible in their digital formats.

Some writers have collaborated with musicians to create authorized book-soundtrack pairings. The author Glen Duncan and Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld did so with the novel and album I, Lucifer in 2003, and again with The Last Werewolf this July. The two had been roommates when they first decided to work on the complementary projects. But unlike Booktrack, the music doesn't provide page-by-page accompaniment to the text. Duncan said during a radio interview earlier this month, "In a weird way, it's not even really a collaboration because the two things do function as self-contained objects...it's a strange symbiotic relationship."

Author Jeff VanderMeer has had soundtracks for each of the three books in his Ambergris Cycle. It began with an album called Fungicide. When the experimental musician Robert Devereux approached the author with his music, VanderMeer gave him some excerpts to work with from his 2002 novel, City Of Saints And Madmen. For his next novel, Shriek, VanderMeer commissioned a soundtrack from an Australia-based band, The Church. Then, after writing Finch while listening to the music of Murder By Death, VanderMeer approached the band for an album to complete the cycle. When Finch came out in late 2009, a limited edition was released with the CD. Parts of the soundtrack correspond with moments in the book, and some readers play a certain track to go with a scene, or listen to the album in a continuous loop.

VanderMeer is fond of combining music with literature, but for him, it's not as straightforward as a soundtrack: "I like to find organic, unexpected confluences between certain bands and musicians I like and certain books, where the synergy is really about something similar or in conversation between imaginations."

When he picked up Graham Joyce's The Silent Land, though, VanderMeer opted to abide by the title for quiet reading. There is something to be said for "the significance of stillness" that properly suited the novel.

Indeed, Booktrack prides itself in bringing out something new in the reading experience, but it seems that at some point, these books will have changed into something else entirely. David Gutowski, better known as "Large Hearted Boy," blogs about books and music, writing and soundtracks. "Once you add music to a book and as one piece of art, I don't know if you can call that a book anymore. It's more of a multimedia experience," he says.

Gutowski has a feature on his site called Book Notes, in which he asks authors to present playlists for their books. Writers, as they tend to do, interpret this in varied ways: "Imaginary soundtracks, music for the characters in their books, some have listed the music they listen to while they're writing their book, and others have taken totally wild tangents," says Gutowski.

But the playlists are not necessarily recommended listening while you read, he noted. "For me the Book Notes playlist work best as an addendum to the book, another point of reference to the work itself. To me, the work stands on its own. It doesn't really need anything else."

What plays on inside a reader's head might be the ultimate value of reading. In silence, the mind can parse through a phrase without distraction, and attention can be paid to meaning more than pace. As Blaise Pascal wrote in 1670, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Then again, a soundtrack that performs the words on the page might shut out the incessant whirring of the world to provide, for those who want it, a way of plugging yourself into a book.

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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