Holmes: I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?
Miss Stoner: Certainly not. But why?
Watson: My God, I whispered; did you see it?
Holmes: That is the baboon.
“Booktrack represents a new chapter in the evolution of storytelling…by creating synchronized soundtracks for e-books that dramatically boost the reader’s imagination and engagement” says the Booktrack management blurb.
We hear the crackle of the fire in the Dickensian glow of 221B Baker Street just as Holmes says “I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire.” In the foggy street below we hear the muffled sound of shod hooves and cart wheels. As Helen Stoner tells her fraught tale we hear the sounds of the story within a story, “It was a wild night. The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows.” Just as we read that the door was suddenly dashed open we hear it so. As the despicable Dr. Roylott excoriates Holmes and bends his fireplace poker in a rage we hear the poker’s protesting creak, and rest assured we hear it again as Holmes straightens it. As Holmes and Watson arrive at Waterloo, we hear the steam whistle. We hear birdsong as they journey along in their dog cart through the Surrey countryside. We hear footsteps grinding of gravel paths in the night, the howl of the exotic cheetah that Dr. Roylott keeps on the grounds of the forbidding Stoke Moran, the creak of Roylott’s safe, wherein resides the creeping evil, the sudden slashes with the cane against the bell pull as Holmes beats back the deadly serpent, the terrified scream and low moan of the spoiler spoiled. What a relief when Holmes delivers his verdict: “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent…”
The speckled band certainly gains in drama and entertainment value, reading it in the Booktrack edition. Here is a preview video:
Booktrack editions (their catalog is thusfar slight and is described in full below) are the clever idea to add background music, ambient sounds, and special sound effects that keep in sync with your reading rate. Bear in mind the story itself is not narrated. The app bases your reading rate on how often you turn pages, or double tap on a word to re-sync the audio. Once it establishes your reading speed (there is also a speed test that you can use before you begin reading to set an initial rate) it stays in sync remarkably well.
App controls are simple. First, you are able to adjust font (from among three), font size and screen color.
Tap the lower case or upper case A to raise or lower font size successively. I find reading stark black on white on a backlit screen difficult, so when I have the option I change the screen color to sepia with contrasting dark brown type.
Volume of the three audio tracks can be adjusted independently, or can be dispensed with altogether by turning them off (though there would be little point to the app if you did).
Clicking on the little wrench icon at the bottom right of the screen (these icons only appear when you have paused your reading by tapping the screen) will cause the reading speed tools to appear.
The reading indicator tools are just what you think they are, an underline or bouncing ball that travel word to word or an arrow shaped slider that slides down the right margin of the page as you read. I want to meet the reader who leaves these turned on. They are off by default and should stay that way. I experimented with them and found them terrifically distracting. I suppose is you found the text getting out of sync with the sound effects you might deliberately use these tools to slow down or speed up the audio track, but it is much easier to keep things synced by double tapping any word, which I had to do just a couple of times in reading the story. It was remarkable how well it stayed synchronized. Finally, the speed test button is how you access the speed test. My only complaint about the test is that it was a couple of paragraphs from the story, but in a very tiny font size that I wish I could have enlarged, but could not.
Do the sound effects, background music and atmospherics enhance the story? Yes, of course they do. But then again it is a very familiar story. Very few people will encounter the Booktrack version as their first exposure to Holmes or the speckled band. It is therefore hard to judge if I would have found it distracting if I were reading the story for the first time. That’s not likely to be an issue, though, judging by their catalog. Booktracks markets a number of titles: short stories, like the Holmes story (free), and Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” for $1.99; childrens’ stories: Kipling’s “Riki Tiki Tavi,” Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” the brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” all free, and “The Ugly Duckling,” for $0.99; and a couple of novel length productions Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, for $1.99 each and The Power of Six for $12.99.
I have only minor criticisms of these apps, which are really just wish list items. You cannot create multiple, working bookmarks (there is a bookmarking feature, but you can only create one effective bookmark). It would be nice to be able to add multiple bookmarks and have them appear on the book’s table of contents, to go to at a tap. I also wish the app had a simple way to jump to a certain page. If you are seeking a quote from a later page there is no simple way to jump there other than by paging through one page at a time. A more distant wish would be the ability to annotate and highlight, but that might be going a little far afield from the producers’ intent.
Do these editions have a serious academic use beyond the simple pleasure of re-reading these stories in a more dramatic treatment? I’m not sure. I can see them being used in reading labs as benchmarks for testing reading speed, but I suspect reader teachers would regard the soundtracks as distractions rather than enhancements. Nevertheless, they might just be the hooks that interest young readers in an author or genre. I think they are great, and have to admire the effort put into them by the developers. If you go to their web site and register, one of the questions you are asked is “Would you like a Booktrack created for your book?” which may hint at a business model. Let’s hope they do well. They deserve it for creating these enjoyable apps.