Three E-Books That Are Making the iPad Sing, Just in Time for Summer Reading Season

7/1/11Follow @wroush

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the people who built the app—New York-based Melcher Media and e-book software startup Push Pop Press—made design choices at every point that privileged the message over the medium. There’s nothing gratuitous here; every piece of non-textual content drives home the bigger message.

I would say the same thing about The Waste Land, a multimedia-enhanced version of the landmark 1922 poem by T.S. Eliot, except that I’m still not sure what the message is. This is one of those literary masterpieces that I escaped studying in high school and college—which is just as well, since I probably wouldn’t have understood it then either. But now that I’ve perused this edition’s extensive footnotes, listened to its audio recordings, flipped through its image gallery, watched video interviews with such literary lions as Seamus Heaney, and taken in the amazing performance of the entire poem by Irish actress Fiona Shaw, I feel that I’ve at least risen to the level of informed ignorance. (You might say that the app has helped me to sense what I don’t know, and thereby escape the dreaded Dunning-Kruger effect.)

The Waste Land is quite a departure for Touch Press, the digital publisher best known for its iPad apps The Elements and Solar System. It has little in common with those heavily illustrated, science-oriented apps beyond its clean, soothing design. Touch Press built the app with help from Faber Digital, the multimedia wing of the London publishing house where Eliot himself was once an editor, which means there’s no shortage of interpretive material. Indeed, I can’t really imagine a more thorough treatment of a single 434-line poem. In addition to the full text, there are annotations and references for nearly every line, the aforementioned interviews and performances, readings by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, and Viggo Mortensen, and even a facsimile of Eliot’s original typewritten manuscript with hand-written edits by Ezra Pound.

You might think that layering on this much supplementary material would shroud the work itself. But as Shaw acknowledges in one of her interviews, The Waste Land is a big, portentous, hard-to-decipher poem; for the most part, the extras have been carefully selected to make it more approachable. I think I’m starting to figure out that it’s about war, urbanization, mental illness, mythology, and disillusionment. As Shaw puts it, “This man has scraped a rake across the 20th century and gathered a sort of leaf-mold heap of what it was about.”

If T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein had moved back to America, toked up on amphetamines, and had a love child, it would surely have been Jack Kerouac. The third e-book app I want to recommend today is the new Penguin Books “amplified edition” of On the Road, the thinly fictionalized 1957 travelogue that crystallized the Beat Generation’s world view and made Kerouac famous.

At the center of this app, designed by Burbank, CA-based 1K Studios, is the book itself, with a minimal and judicious set of notes that, helpfully, identify the characters—Dean Moriarty is Neal Cassady, Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg, etc. But that’s nothing you couldn’t get from a cheap paperback edition. What justifies this app’s $12.99 price tag, as with The Waste Land, are the extensive extras. It’s a like a Peter Jackson movie with five DVD bonus discs. The features just keep coming at you in waves: photos from Kerouac’s life, video interviews with Carolyn Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, profiles of the other Beat writers, letters between Kerouac and his publishers, and annotated maps showing the three cross-country trips by Kerouac in 1947, 1949, and 1950 that form the basis of the novel. Most riveting to me, the e-book contains about half an hour of recordings of Kerouac himself reading from the book.

The effect, again, is to contextualize On the Road in a way that would be almost impossible in a print-only edition. I envy the new generation of high school and college students who are likely to have their first encounters with Kerouac and other authors in this format.

If you ask what makes these three iPad titles so successful, I think a few lessons pop out for future e-book designers:

  • Start with a decent text; it’s hard to make a masterpiece look bad.
  • Respect the text. It’s the digital era, but these are still books, not movies with liner notes.
  • Select extras that reinforce or explain the main message.
  • Use design solely to streamline access to the text and the extras. Avoid decoration and chartjunk.
  • Think about tasteful new ways to utilize the touch-based tablet interface. (For example: you can fast-forward or rewind through the videos in The Waste Land simply by swiping left or right; there’s no fussy time bar.)
  • Don’t be afraid to charge for value. The best 1990s-era CD-ROMs sold for $30 to $50; the new iPad titles are at least as good.

Smarter people than I will no doubt come up with more ways to make tablet-based books fun and interesting. For now, these three titles should keep your summer from turning into a waste land.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • David

    So what, authors have to become programmers too now? What the hell is happening to the world when a person has to hold two degrees to have any measure of success?

    The world is just getting tighter and tighter for people who have creativity, but no lengthy education or social life.

    It’s either that or my view of myself should be far, FAR lower… The only reason I became an author was because of the Kindle allowing me to do it myself without a middle man, or excessive restrictions in the industry.