Are We There Yet? Touch Press’s “The Waste Land” for iPad.

Usability studies have demonstrated that reading on tablets is more enjoyable than reading on the screen of computers and, in some cases, more than reading print. But this is for general reading: does it also apply to highly sophisticated digital scholarly editions? Is the sophistication of such editions, as we have conceived them so far, the enemy of accessibility and user-friendliness? Are tablet apps a possible way to enhance the appeal of Digital Scholarly Editions?  (Elena Pierazzo)

A month or so ago, I posted a review of the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio'” app for iPad, a digital “edition” that I found to be more than a tad disappointing.  At roughly the same time that I downloaded the British Library’s “First Folio” app, I also acquired, at the particular recommendation of a friend, a book app devoted to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  I would like now to consider this digital edition within the larger context of thinking about what such electronic texts should look like and do. In particular, I want to use this “review” as a leaping-off point for a subsequent discussion on the subject of digital texts for a more “scholarly” audience, with a particular focus upon texts for teaching. As Elena Pierazzo’s comments above might suggest, there is a great deal of potential in apps such as this to bring digital scholarly editions — whether intended for researchers or students — to the mainstream.  But are we there yet?

I teach some Eliot in a first year course, but my acquaintance with him, while more than merely passing, is probably not a great deal deeper than that of most experienced students (“official” or otherwise) of English literature. The Waste Land is, after all, arguably the defining poem of the 20th century, and in that sense it is communal property in a way that most other poems are not.  When I was a teen, and first discovered the enormous angst-potential of poetry, Eliot was The Poet, and The Waste Land  unquestionably the vital touchstone of a certain kind of moral and aesthetic “seriousness” in literary taste, so I became reasonably familiar with it at a fairly early age. And while I am more aware now than ever of how much I do not know about it, the poem still “sounds” to me as a familiar voice: comfortable and, despite all its gloom, somehow comforting.  Indeed, perhaps too much so, as the poem is for me somewhat more resonant with personal significance than is really helpful to someone who teaches it.  I looked forward to exploring the iPad app, and angsting away again to the familiar cadences of Eliot’s masterwork.

The digital "front page" of Touch Press's impressive "The Waste Land" app

The Waste Land  for iPad is published by Touch Press LLP and Faber and Faber.  The commentary that can be read alongside the poem in this app (and about which more below) have been taken, we are told, from B. C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, first published in 1968. The involvement of Faber and Faber in this project is a very good sign in some respects: most of Eliot’s oeuvre was, of course, first published by that house, and Eliot himself was, from 1925 onwards, an employee (and eventually director) of the company.

Screen capture of a text page of the poem with marginal notes. Some of the latter are quite extensive, and expand when touched.

How happy am I to report that my high hopes for this app were fulfilled?  Well, very happy.  In almost every regard, this is a very capable and worthwhile treatment of Eliot’s poem.  It is not, it must be said, a “scholarly” edition of The Waste Land, but as a resource for general readers it exemplifies some of the really exciting things that can be done with digital texts.  The app, which is aesthetically very well designed and attractive, includes not merely the complete text of The Waste Land, but also a complete photo facsimile of Eliot’s annotated typescript of the poem, with the handwritten comments, suggestions, and criticisms that were added by Eliot, his first wife Vivien, and Ezra Pound. The typescript (the app calls it a “manuscript,” but hey, whatever) is lightly but informatively annotated. The poem itself can be read as a “clean” text, or with extensive (and often lengthy) explanatory annotations that appear to the left of the screen:  these address everything from the specifics of the allusions that the poem makes to aspects of the poem’s composition and reception.

Audio recordings of the poem being recited are also available, and can be listened to in conjunction with a view of the text (each line is highlighted as it is read): readers include Eliot himself (in two versions, from 1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen (huh?), and Fiona Shaw.  Shaw’s reading is taken from a dramatic “performance” of the poem that is also included with the app as a full-length video: it is a compelling and arresting performance (if also perhaps a little problematic in some respects, as an “interpretation” of the poem).

A still from Fiona Shaw's (very) dramatic reading of the poem.

One of the more interesting and innovative facets of the app is its surprisingly generous selection of video commentaries on the poem, found in a section of the programme entitled “Perspectives,” from a variety of writers and performers that includes the poet Seamus Heaney, editor Paul Keegan, critic and editor Jim McCue, poet Craig Raine, actor and director Fiona Shaw, punk musician Frank Turner, and the novelist Jeanette Winterson. The commentaries are fascinating precisely because they provide such a diversity of perspective on the poem; as each commentator speaks, the apposite section of the poem is displayed to the right, along with an occasional image relating to the commentary. In some ways, as someone who is already reasonably familiar with the poem and its history, I found this feature of the app most appealing, as it exposed me to some rather new, interesting, and diverse perspectives on Eliot’s piece.

A final feature of the book app is a modest gallery of images relating to the poem. The appropriateness of most of these is self-evident: they include, for instance, a couple of photographic portraits of Ezra Pound, and one of Vivien Eliot, as well a photo of the opening of the poem as it appeared in The Dial, where it was first published. Others seem a little odd: there are no less than two pictures of Bob Dylan who, we are told, was much influenced by Eliot’s poetry. This struck me as the least satisfactory element of the app, as the pictures seem a little miscellaneous and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the digital edition.

The publishers of the app have produced a video highlighting many of the facets of this edition:

Much of the context, background, and interpretation that this app provides for the poem will seem immediately familiar – the comfortable voice(s) of which I spoke – to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance of the poem.  The notes contain the expected expansions upon Eliot’s allusiveness, and upon his use of the myth of the Fisher King in the poem; there is also much on his relationship with Pound and the influence of Vivien Eliot. In this sense, the app provides little that is new.

For me, the heart of this digital edition, however, lies in the “Perspectives” section, which (as I have noted) includes the more personal reflections and comments upon the poem by people as diverse as Frank Turner and Seamus Heaney. These provide what the commentary to the poem really does not: fresh views and understandings of The Waste Land.  This I found also to be a function of audio recordings of readings of the poem: to listen to Alec Guinness’s rendition of The Waste Land  is to hear a very “different” poem, in some respects, than we get hearing Eliot, Hughes, or Shaw, reading it.  Indeed, there are instructive, if subtle, differences between Eliot’s 1933 and 1947 readings of the poem of which I had been unaware.  (I was also personally heartened by Mortensen’s reading, which I am pretty sure is not much better than my own.)  The app really does, quite literally, give us The Waste Land  in different voices.

I do have some cavils.  Eliot’s notes appear at the conclusion of the poem, which is as it should be, but some facility to leap back and forth between these and the text to which they refer would have been helpful. Ironically, consulting the notes in conjunction with the text is a relatively simple task with a printed codex; one need only flip back and forth between pages.  Doing so with this app is somewhat more laborious, and it isn’t possible to have both the text of the poem and Eliot’s own notes on the screen at the same time, although one can read the critical commentary alongside the verse text.

One might wish as well that the notes for the poem had been written afresh, rather than recycled from a now fairly ancient student guide to Eliot, even an updated one.  A awful lot has happened in Eliot scholarship in the past few decades, and it would have been nice to have had better access to such new scholarship than Southam’s book provides.  In this context, too, it’s a shame that the app does not include a brief biographical note on Eliot himself, and one in particular that glances at some of the darker aspects of his life, character, and poetry. Unsurprisingly, this app tends to be a “celebration” of the poem, and generally eschews a more probing critique of its somewhat recidivist aesthetics and ideology.

Screen shot of a page from the "manuscript" of the poem, with annotation in a panel to the lower left.

One might also have wished for a bibliography or list of books and articles for “Further Reading.”  The edition’s notes occasionally cite particular critics by name, but do not, unfortunately, reference the particular papers or monographs being cited. Finally, a minimal textual apparatus would have been helpful. There are references to textual issues in the notes and annotations, but it would have been nice to have had these details assembled in a conventional form in one place.

These issues notwithstanding, I would not hesitate to recommend this app to anyone interested in knowing this poem better, or, for that matter, to my own students. In fact, I would be delighted to assign it as a course text in my first-year English course (in which I do teach The Waste Land), and would probably devote a couple of weeks to exploring it with them, were it cheaply and easily available to all of my students.

But there, alas, lies the rub. While the app itself is quite inexpensive, the hardware required to use it is, of course, not. Sadly, too, this app is available only for the iPad, a particularly pricey little digital toy that is undoubtedly well beyond the means of the majority of my students.

I’ll conclude with a final thought on this kind of app. Touch Press’s The Waste Land and other apps of its kind are self-contained mini-programmes that “live,” for the most part, on your iPad, in isolation from the larger world of the Web.  This fact makes them more stable than online resources, and it also means that they can generally run more quickly, because they are not reliant upon information being streamed to them from an external server. But while much is to be gained by this approach, something else is lost, namely, the connectivity to a (much) larger metaverse of information and resources already existing online. This kind of connectivity is often problematic: web sites disappear, links become “dead,” and, of course, one has to continually exercise one’s judgement to determine what is “worthwhile” and trustworthy from the great mass of dross that is also to be found online. This said, that connectivity is what makes online scholarship truly dynamic, a “work in progress” rather than a neatly packaged but ultimately static book-in-a-box. Additionally, it would be good to see resources like this enable connectivity between “users,” be they students or otherwise.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s comments on the iBook Authors app by Apple are relevant in this context:

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

It is at least mildly disturbing that these new apps are happy to eschew the admittedly problematic fecundity of existence within a larger world of the Web for a safer, but ultimately more sterile existence locked within the hard drive of a tablet computer.

The Wasteland for iPad is probably just about the most attractive, sophisticated, and information-packed app for a digital book now available. But does it herald the arrival of truly scholarly works to the mainstream eBook medium?  Are we, in fact, there yet?  The answer, as I’ll discuss in my next post, is, I think, no.  But, as a major step in the right direction, this app is worthy of some study by digital editors.


T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land  for iPad, ed.  Justin Badger and Charles Chabot, Touch Press LLP, and Faber and Faber, 2011.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Reflections on the Apple Education Event,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 January, 2012. Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Elena Pierazzo, “Tablets Apps, or the future of the Scholarly Editons?” Elena Pierazzo’s Blog: Random Thoughts of a Digital Humanist with a Passion for Cookery, 27 November, 2011. Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Brian C.  Southam, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1968; 1994.

Much Ado about Nothing? The British Library’s “First Folio” App for iPad

The British Library, William Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio’ for iPad.

It’s pretty rare that I feel “leading edge”; in general, I tend to bob along after trends like a rubber dingy tethered to an ocean liner.  This Christmas was no exception:  like, it would seem, a great many others, I received an iPad2 from Santa. (Well, strictly speaking I bought it for myself, and then placed it under the tree: the old guy is too busy to keep up with all of the tech toys, and I wanted to be sure that what I received was actually what I wanted and needed.)

I have always been resistant to the allure of Apple, although I have long owned an iPod:  while I will readily concede the excellence of Apple products, their corporate philosophy and insistence upon a closed-source control over very nearly every aspect of everything they produce has always seemed to me a bit . . . well, fascist.  However, the point of getting an iPad in the first place was to get a sense of the way in which digital texts were being translated for tablet computers, and, for better or worse, most of these are being produced for the iPad (although more and more appear to be available for Android as well).

When I first began to explore digital textuality some 8 or 9 years ago, the “place” where electronic texts “happened” was, of course, on the desktop or laptop computer.  Increasingly however, and particularly with the advent of relatively cheap eReaders such the Kobo and Kindle providing access to tens of thousands of inexpensive (and sometimes even free) digital texts, digital textuality is moving on to the tablet or eReader. My interest in the books available on simple readers such as the Kindle is fairly limited right now, although I’m sure that this will change.  These are relatively unsophisticated devices after all, and their potential is limited by the simplicity of their platforms. Also, they are not nearly as pretty or fun as tablets, and you can’t play Angry Birds on them.

Title Page for First Folio

The title page of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

The potential offered by the graphics and scripting capabilities of the true tablet computer such as the iPad, on the other hand, means however that texts made available for these platforms can provide full and deeply engaging multimedia experiences.  And so, almost the first two apps I downloaded on to my shiny new iPad – just after “Angry Birds,” of course – were a Shakespeare app from the British Library, and another devoted to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.  Early Modern book geek that I am, I was particularly excited by the Shakespeare app, which promises “an exact facsimile reproduction of the large and handsome book known simply as the ‘First Folio,’” and notes that consulting early printed versions of these plays “is an essential part of a more complete understanding of Shakespeare’s work.”  Well, yeah.  Duh.

Ok, fair enough. Unfortunately, however, the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’” on iBooks turns out to be something of a disappointment.  The application does indeed provide no fewer than 905 photo facsimiles of one of the BL’s copies of the First Folio: these are very nicely rendered in full colour, and can be displayed to show one page opening, or a single page per screen. A zoom feature also permits a somewhat closer view of the text, although the image deteriorates in quality fairly rapidly if one attempts to zoom in too closely.

Sadly, however, this is pretty much all the BL app offers.  The briefest one page introduction to the history of the First Folio (given without any citations or references), and an even shorter list of the credits for the short audio excerpts included in the app represent almost the only addition to the facsimile images.

A screen capture from the BL's "Shakespeare's 'First Folio'"

Now, if one enjoys, as I do, reading early modern texts in their original printed format, the app clearly has something to offer.  For the general reader or the scholar, however, this digital edition comes up decidedly short.  There is no metadata and no scholarly apparatus of any sort; the BL doesn’t even tell us which copy of the First Folio it has reproduced.  We are told nothing about the provenance, location, identity, or material conditions – not even the page dimensions – of the book we are viewing. And, while it clearly would be expecting too much for this edition to include commentary, annotations, or extensive textual notes, a simple introduction to each of the plays should surely have been possible.  This is not unexplored terrain: a few things have been written about this guy’s plays, and one would have thought that it would not have been terribly difficult or expensive to add a few words about them.

The pages can be accessed by flipping through the book one page at a time (using the somewhat annoying “page flipping” animation that has now become almost standard for this kind of eText), and there is a table of contents that provides either a list of the plays and pages, or nearly useless page thumbnails from which to choose. A search feature (which is I think standard with iBooks) will search the two “introductory” pages at the beginning – all two or three hundred words of them – but can’t access the play texts themselves, and otherwise includes only buttons to “Search Web” and (*gag*) “Search Wikipedia.”  Other than these features, the only additional “shiny” offered us is about a dozen short audio clips from the plays, performed with Early Modern pronunciation. Cool, but not really sufficiently interesting or informative to add a great deal of value to the edition.

I’m a little mystified as to what the British Library thinks it is offering here.  The page images are very pretty, and reasonably clear, but they aren’t really detailed enough, at a screen resolution of only 768px X 1024px, to be of much use to the scholar, and the lack of even a minimal textual apparatus and metadata more or less rules out any scholarly utility anyway. As for the general reader, the complete lack of annotation, explanation, context, or indeed virtually any information about what is appearing on the screen must surely render this resource a much less useful and interesting gateway to Shakespeare’s plays than might otherwise have been the case.  How many people really want to read Timon of Athens straight through in a facsimile of an original printing, without the aid of any context, commentary, or even cheap thrills?  A few might, I suppose, but I don’t know of any, nor do I number myself among them.

Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to complain about this app. Although it is relatively expensive compared to all other book apps that I’ve seen, it is still pretty cheap, coming in at about $26.00 (Canadian).  I’d happily pay that for a print photo facsimile edition, with or without apparatus.  But it is a little off-putting that the BL seems to have put such little effort into the creation of this app.  The page images they must surely have already had, and as interesting as the brief audio clips are, they don’t really add a great deal to the package. Would it have been too much to ask for a little more in the way of information from them about the book that they are so reverently offering up to the public?  One frankly expects more from the BL than what seems to be, at first glance, a hastily-assembled and poorly contextualized collection of page images.

So, for the price, this was, I suppose a worthwhile investment.  But only just.  I’m not unhappy to have it, and I’m sure I’ll be able to make some use of it in the future, but if this represents the “future” of scholarly book apps (and fortunately I don’t think it does), then I am unimpressed.  In the meantime, however, I am well equipped for the next time I feel a hankering to read Timon with long “s”s and wormholing.

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post originally written for Facebook. I have changed relatively little but the style, having received a criticism from a friend — well, she calls herself my friend — that my original was “pompous.”