Literary Apps: Museums Without Walls?

281851582_979263862001_110606TheWastelandApp-4788967While web-based applications such as ‘Turning the Pages’ offer a good opportunity to access precious and rare manuscripts outside of formal, controlled environments, they do not necessarily provide a curated experience. In essence, they present single exhibits, individual manuscripts which do not have a narrative or interpretative shape. Yet, there is a growing trend in applications for tablet computers and other mobile devices, software that allows the user to explore a virtual exhibition of manuscripts and other material alongside original texts. These apps can be focused and curated, presenting an interpretative view of an author’s work and the archival materials surrounding its creation.

WasteLandPoundNotes1The first notable literary app to be released was Faber’s digital version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Launched in 2011, the app combines the original poem with critical notes, readings that are synchronised with the text, videos, and facsimiles of the manuscript annotated by Ezra Pound. For a work as intricate and complicated as The Waste Land, this treatment works well, offering the reader a focused examination of why it is one of the most important works of modernist poetry. It also brings life (and a little glamour) to the poem by having famous actors, such as Viggo Mortensen, Alec Guinness and Fiona Shaw, give readings. This, in particular, is a technique that has been pioneered by museums, offering a draw for the casual visitor but also some value for those with a more specific interest. The app goes beyond a study guide, combining the usual traits of a critical edition (scholarly notes on the text, experts giving their insight, etc.) with items that would previously have only be seen in either museums or expensive published facsimiles (the manuscript with Pound’s annotation, for example). Being the first such app, it shows, tantalisingly, how literature can be engaged with by a public audience in the digital realm, and suggests ways in which research and teaching of literature could develop in the future, yet other apps have built upon The Waste Land’s foundation.

A-Clockwork-OrangeiPad_38c830Released on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the original novel, the app version of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange contains a plenitude of extra material that in some ways takes its influence from The Waste Land app. Here too are text-synchronised readings (by Tom Hollander and Burgess himself among others), and copious scholarly notes on the text. There are videos with experts and celebrity admirers (Martin Amis, Blake Morrison) talking about the novel’s influence and original composition. There are also manuscripts in facsimile. But what is presented, this time by Random House, is a much richer collection: the original typescript of the novel; various letters from the archive; Burgess’s writing about the novel; Burgess’s sheet music; the original contract; a reader report; a draft glossary; a gallery of covers from around the world; interviews; reviews and more. The app represents the most complete collection of materials about the creation of the novel, Burgess’s own biography and the critical reception of the novel it is possible to imagine. The navigation of the app allows the user to flip between the published text and the original typescript, and allows not on the notes to be access from the text but also relevant sections of the videos and other extra material. All of this gives the user the opportunity to assess and interpret the material in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a standard literary exhibition. It represents, as Anna Baddeley points out in her review in the Guardian, ‘the democratisation of material once the preserve of scholars and biographers’.

IMG_0060The development of successful literary apps, such as the two detailed above, depends on the certain factors. Both of the above apps focus on works of literature that have stood the test of time, that have inarguably achieved the status of classic. In other words, they have succeeded in engaging audiences in a traditional printed format before being given the digital treatment. It is hard to image an app being developed from a newer novel, or a novel that is considerably less well known. This is true of museum exhibits too, of course, but the creation of a literary app is a commercial endeavour and it is possible that there will be many poorly constructed apps that offer little insight or focus on books that do not require the same sort of analysis as The Waste Land or A Clockwork Orange. As Laura Miller of Salon writes, ‘The usual titles at the top of e-book bestseller lists don’t call for this sort of exegesis. There’s not much call to dig deeper unless the book in question has some depth. I don’t really need anyone to help me read a Stieg Larsson thriller, and I don’t plan to be ruminating on it much once I’m done.’

But perhaps where The Waste Land and A Clockwork Orange apps succeed is their transcendence of this commerciality. Yes, they are being sold, presumably for profit, but both apps have been carefully curated in a way that highlights the excitement of uncovering literary artefacts in the archive. They are virtual museum exhibitions without many of the limitations of the actual museum: they can present word-rich manuscripts that can be analysed at leisure and in whatever depth the user chooses, they can be accessed from anywhere, and they have the luxury of providing the complete original text. Perhaps, as literary apps develop, they will offer another way to open up archives, to illuminate authors’ creative processes and to highlight the importance of literary heritage.