Have you ever found yourself holding your breath while reading a particularly stressful scene in a book? Or, maybe, like me, you’ve found yourself smiling at a well-written heartwarming moment that is brilliantly genuine yet not sentimental? Or perhaps you’ve even clutched your chest like I have numerous times, feeling your heart race slightly, through pages of intense actions or emotions?
Last night when Adam got home from work I could barely even say hi to him. For the rest of the night I was in a funk, distractedly cooking our red curry, hardly speaking during dinner. I couldn’t even properly snuggle up during our movie last night (Dallas Buyers Club–highly recommend) until about halfway through when I finally started feeling like myself again.
I had gotten to a very disturbing and climactic part in my book and I was so moved and troubled by it that I was having difficulty staying in the present. Books, when they are written properly, should have this effect on us. I am physically agitated by books. They make my palms sweat, heart race and body jitter. I understand I can become overly invested in situations and have a tendency to fixate on ideas or scenarios, but with books this isn’t so much a problem as almost a requirement for pure literary bliss.
So I’m disheartened and equally disturbed by the most recent innovation to come out of the wickedly smart individuals at MIT. The “Sensory Fiction” project is an attempt to connect the reader more closely with the protagonist through a wearable vest and light-augmented book. The article reads, “The book, explain the researchers, senses the page a reader is on, and changes ambient lighting and vibrations to ‘match the mood’. A series of straps form a vest which contains a ‘heartbeat and shiver simulator’, a body compression system, temperature controls and sound.” When your protagonist’s heart starts racing, small pads imbedded within the vest begin vibrating you literally feel those same sensations.
The prototype is the novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr. and the developers of the project suggest that this technology is best suited for sci-fi books or action thrillers. The researchers also said, “Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories,” but I honestly cannot get on board with this.
The Goldfinch, which I was reading last night and finished this morning, is by all means a literary fiction book but is also a psychological thriller in many ways. It’s incredibly suspenseful and eventful, but I don’t need an electrode on my chest to tell me that. This technology is for a lazy reader. Adam Roberts, a notable science fiction writer explains why very well:
“[Sensory fiction books] are infantalising, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound-effects…Books affect our minds; that’s the sort of machines books are. The urge to make the books directly effect our bodies as well is a sort of category error…Emotions that start in the head and move into the body are far more effective than faux-emotional responses mimicked by flashing lights and pressure pads.”
This new technology reminds me of that gizmo you could strap around your waist and wear for twenty minutes to get six-pack abs. I think the infomercial even suggested you could wear it to the office and no one would be the wiser. Reap the benefits of emotions without doing any work! We are literally asking a computer to tell us how to react and feel when we read or even input information. Is this not scaring anyone else? The fate of the Book is already precarious for many people, what of it now?
I was so stirred and shaken by my protagonist’s actions last night and am still reeling a bit from the whole book and its last impressions. Please don’t take away or disrupt the way I want to experience my books. Leave my emotions to me.
Are there any thoughts on this? Have you read about it? I linked to two separate articles above but here’s a third in case you’re interested in learning more.
(thank you for sharing, Adam!)