Books that make you feel things

A few months ago a coworker told me about this new thing called “sensory fiction.” Three students at MIT created a “connected book and wearable” that portrays the scenery and sets the mood of a story while you are reading it, allowing you to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions. Basically, it’s a book that makes you feel things.

A book that makes you feel things.

As the protagonist’s mood changes, the wearable—a vest with a personal heating device and pressurized air bags—alters the reader’s body temperature, produces vibrations to influence heart rate, and inflates or deflates the air bags to induce anxiety or relaxation.

The existence of such a device assumes 1) that feelings have physiological aspects that can be manipulated; 2) that manipulating these physiological aspects will produce the same or similar reactions in everyone; 3) that the wearable’s programmers are able to deduce from a writer’s words what a character is feeling; and 4) that they can push the appropriate physiological buttons to simulate that feeling in the reader.

Bibliophiles everywhere will hate this idea. They will say, if you need a wearable to feel the despair that makes Juliet plunge a dagger into her own heart, then no amount of chest squeezing by pressurized air bags is going to be able to feel it for you.

But, as a user named Jim wrote in the comments section of the MIT project blog:


Jim gets it. If you could feel whatever you wanted to, whenever you wanted to, if a book literally could turn you on, wouldn’t you read it over and over and over again?

But what happens when, the thousandth time Christian Grey moves his fingers rhythmically inside you while you suck harder and harder, it somehow just no longer quite does it for you?

Or, what if the connected book and wearable’s idea of what it would be like to be pinned against the wall “climaxing anew, calling out his name” instead makes you feel like you just ate from a bad Indian buffet? Hot. Shaky. Tight in the chest.

Or, even worse, what if your wearable becomes the only thing that moves you? At least you don’t have to worry about rejection. As long as you keep the battery charged.

Given the option between a book that triggers the neurological lightning bolts of love or the real thing, who among us would choose the replica?

How would the wearable represent the feeling of being waist-deep in shit in the jungles of Vietnam, searching for the body of your fallen friend? Would your heartbeat quicken again? Would your body temperature rise? How would this feel different from floating down the Mississippi in the sweltering summer or plunging your hands into a caldron of whale fat and mistaking someone else’s fingers for your own?

Books to Fix Us

There are some obvious advantages to simulating emotional responses in readers. The opportunity to educate children about empathy, for example. And to engage the ones who might not appreciate literature.

But, why stop at kids? What about people who lack the necessary brain chemistry to feel remorse? Sociopaths. Violent criminals. Rapists. Child murderers. What if they could read something that helped them to understand what it feels like to be a victim?

Where is the line between making people feel things as education, and making them feel things as punishment?

But, of course, physiology is only one part of emotional response. You can shake without feeling fear, overheat without feeling angry, choke up without feeling sad. It is not only the firing of neuron to neuron in our brains that animates us. The reflexes, the instincts, the built-in responses, are only part of the story. Those instincts get triggered in the brain, producing the physiological response—the shivering, the sweating, the tension—but what triggers the instinct? And why do we suppose it’s not a one-way neurological highway? If we start dialing up emotional responses from the outside in, what might be the risks?

Of course, we are already doing this through pharmaceuticals that alter our brain chemistry, allowing us to be happy when we are sad, relaxed when we are anxious, and relieved of depression while our children sit by, focused and controlled.

How is dialing up our emotions with a book any different from dialing them up with Xanax or Ritalin?

What happens when someone in a fragile state of mind “feels” a book that disturbs them, changes them, makes them seem less like themselves?

Will the connected book and wearable come with a full-page warning in miniscule print describing all the possible side effects?

The Unpredictable Human Soul

These scientists at MIT may have whittled down the human experience to a neat and tidy formula, but what about that unknown ingredient, the thing that mixes with physiology to produce the richness of our unique emotional landscapes?

We may be able to simulate the relative likeness of fear or anxiety or romantic love by artificially triggering the physical symptoms, but if that is one half of the picture, then what is the other half, if not the soul?

And, as Carl Jung said, “If the soul is really only an idea, this idea has an alarming air of unpredictability about it.”

The physiological is the wild animal, ruled by instinct, triggered by specific stimuli to a programmed reaction. The other part is the one who makes sense of it all. The human experience is defined by the tenuous balance between the two. As Jung posited:

The closer one comes to the instinct world, the more violent is the urge to shy away from it and to rescue the light of consciousness from the murks of the sultry abyss. Psychologically, however, the archetype as an image of instinct is a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives; it is the sea to which all rivers wend their way, the prize which the hero wrests from the fight with the dragon.

Literature has a large part in documenting that thin boundary between the instinct world (the physiological) and the light of consciousness (the sense-maker). And humankind’s ventures along that line have taken us to some very, very weird places.

For example, how would the connected book and wearable portray this moment in Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

… he would crawl up to the windowsill and, propped up in the chair, lean against the window, evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have from looking out the window. For, in fact, from day to day he saw things less and less distinctly; the hospital opposite, which he used to curse because he saw so much of it, was now completely beyond his range of vision, and if he had not been positive that he was living in Charlotte Street—a quiet but still very much a city street—he might have believed that he was looking out of his window into a desert where the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably fused.

And how would the wearable portray Kafka’s scene differently from this one in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

… poor Gregor Samsa, his little legs trembling, climbs his armchair and looks out of his room, no longer remembering (so Kafka’s narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him. And just as Gregor’s dimmed eyes failed to recognize the quiet street where he and his family had lived for years, taking Charlottenstraße for a grey wasteland, so I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place.

Maybe sensory fiction is not about nuance. Maybe it’s just about the butterflies in the belly when you’re flying on your Nimbus 2000. The question remains, why are we so desperate to be made to feel things?

Our Aching Loneliness

What else could this desire for constant, emotion-inducing entertainment possibly be about, if not loneliness?

And, given a product that stimulates our emotions, wouldn’t we choose to feel anything but loneliness? What costs would that have?

In her 1976 essay “On Being Alone,” published in The Village Voice, Karen Durbin writes:

Loneliness. There it is. Miserable, perpetual lump in the throat. I haven’t got the wit to find a lover who would love me more than he loved fantasy. Maybe I’ve become something unlovable. Maybe men and women are now on such divergent paths that we will never manage again without maiming ourselves irrevocably. ‘You mustn’t end up lonely,’ says Ma, going as ever to the heart of the matter. ‘Lonely people are afraid, and you musn’t be afraid.’

But that is the crux of the human experience—we are alone together. To deny our loneliness is to deny one of the very things that makes us human.

In the opening chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the protagonist, Rick, argues with his wife, Iran, whom he discovers has been intentionally dialing her mood organ to feel so-called negative emotions. She responds:

… ‘I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.’ Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. ‘So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything’…

The physical manifestation of human emotion, ranging from the macro—the shivering, the shortness of breath—to the micro—the spark of lightning flashing in the brain—is not, in and of itself, life. Those neurons are not life. Life is the thing that makes us kill and die for each other. The thing that keeps us striving and striving and striving despite our repeatedly broken hearts.

Literature is the place where we seek to find that spark of consciousness, that real life, reflected back to us. Sometimes what we see is truly terrifying as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:

… leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows. And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind and some were feathered with arrows and some lanced through and stumbling and vomiting blood as they wheeled across the killing ground and clattered from sight again. Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and the horses lay screaming.

And other times, literature is redeeming, as in one of my favorite passages of all time, from Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Beneficence:”

… I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

What would sensory fiction do that literature does not do for us already? And are we sure that it would be an improvement?

The Book Experience

I love flea markets. I like to just walk around and take pictures of all the weird consumerist ephemera from other people’s lives. On one of these excursions, I came upon this:

Grease Lightning

That’s right. It’s the 1978 adaptation of the musical Grease in every lo-tech media possible. It’s a VHS tape and an 8-track. An album and a cassette. Trading cards. And a book.

Now, as a woman of a certain age, let’s just say I have seen this film many times. I always had a thing for Kenickie. Danny was just a little too goofy. Kenickie was goofy too, but he was a little more real. Jeff Conway, the actor who played him in the film, had this certain kind of fuck-it attitude that felt authentic to the character: a greaser kid with few prospects and no money.

I opened the book expecting to find a shmaltzy transcript of the movie. Instead, I found this:

KenickieWatch out, Rizzo. Kenickie’s got a new baby mama.

Somehow, reading this story that I have watched so many times as a film, felt completely different. And in many ways, better.

The Netflix Generation

You know who loves the idea of sensory fiction, who absolutely can’t wait for it, are kids.

When I told her about it, nine-year-old Julia hopped up and down with excitement, saying, “I want it! I want it! I want it!” in the way that other little girls might beg for Justin Bieber tickets.

Julia is of the Netflix generation. Media-binging is a way of life. She is not at all conflicted.

Julia’s favorite books are the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, in which the titular character, a lonely Long Island juvenile delinquent, suddenly finds that he is living in a world populated with Greek gods.

So, even as they are perpetually plugged in, geotracked, and optimally marketed to, Julia’s generation is still inspired by the themes and archetypes that have sparked human emotions since circa 900 B.C. (Cue Jung again).

The thought of a generation of little Julias growing up with air bags strapped to their chests believing their wearable knows what love is supposed to feel like is heartbreaking and, in so many ways, unnecessary.

Instead of being locked up in their bedrooms subsisting on literary life support, what if Julia’s generation were gathered in cafes and parks talking about literature, sharing how it makes them feel as unique and emotionally complex individuals, and perhaps locking eyes with the boy or girl across from them and falling in love for real?