Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
The result isn’t that flashy, but Google’s addition of Maps to its Google Book Search points to the promise of digitizing books. As we have seen with the layers of data that Amazon has added to its database – things like Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases – digitization of books makes it easy for people to draw connections between books. But digitization also allows for layers of explanatory and reference data to be made easily accessible.Of course, there have long been annotated editions of many books, but in those cases we are limited by the editors’ decisions on what material deserves greater explanation and what material stands on its own. With the Internet placing a universe of information at our fingertips, it is now easy for readers and scholars (especially those with access to library databases) to supplement their reading with background information and to find related texts. But sites like Google Books promise to make this process even easier and more fruitful by allowing the books themselves, in their digitized form, to be analyzed and enhanced.In its own modest way, adding Maps to Google Books is an example of this. Have a look at the Google Books page for Around the World in 80 Days (scroll down to see the map). Having the map there adds something to the experience of this geography-centric novel, and it’s not much of leap to wonder if a similar system might be able to pull in related images (say, hot air balloons of that era) or contemporary newspaper reviews of the book. The possibilities are almost endless, and, though one must always make the point that such technology is meant to enhance and not replace our beloved paper books, further exploration down this road would be a great thing for literature and learning.On the subject of maps, specifically, as a map lover, I’m excited to see Google trying this out because, like Jerome Weeks, I believe that nearly every book would benefit from the addition of a map or two.
This week, there were a pair of updates on the copyright cases against Google that are being brought by publishers and authors.Initially, the two groups had been pursuing two separate complaints against Google, but this week Judge John Sprizzo consolidated the two cases into one. According to MarketWatch: “Sprizzo’s streamlining was inevitable because the authors and publishers accuse Google of virtually the same thing, and plan to use the same kind of evidence.” It sounds like that news is probably good for the authors and publishers if not terribly consequential.The other bit of new news, that the case won’t be decided until early 2008, is undoubtedly bad for the anti-Google Books camp, both because it means the authors and publishers will have to spend more money going up against deep-pocketed Google, and because Google Books will continue operating unfettered for over a year until the case is handed down, as eWeek explains.Now that we know that Google Books turns searchers into buyers, not stealers, perhaps it’s a good time for the authors and publishers to broker a compromise with Google.
Today, the Publishers Lunch newsletter pointed to a post at Engadget indicating that Apple might make eBooks available through its iTunes Music Store.How would this work? Well, it wouldn’t work on current iPods, but speculation is rampant that the next generation of iPods, likely out in time for the holiday season, will have a much larger screen, one that takes up the entire face of the device. (There’s a mocked-up image of what it might look like in the post linked above.) When turned horizontally, the iPod would allow for a screen four inches wide and almost two and a half inches high, not a lot of real estate, but then again, people watch movies on video iPod screens even smaller than that. Some further details:A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration — kind of like Apple-bought musicNow, I know from previous posts on the topic of eBooks, that this news will likely make many readers of The Millions say that they will never read books this way and that they would miss the look and feel that books offer, but I’m curious as to whether this effort would take off amongst the less-discerning broader public.What interests me in particular is that this offering would differ from previous eBooks that I’ve talked about. In earlier posts (here, here, and here) about various incarnations of eBooks, I’ve talked about how useful they might be for textbooks and technical books but also how challenging it might be to get customers to embrace them.The iPod, however, as it has in other realms, would change the rules. Some thoughts (sorry, but I’m thinking in bullet points today):By offering books through iTunes, publishers would suddenly be able to put their books in front of young readers who perhaps never go to book storesThe marriage of the book and the iPod would launch old-fashioned books into the twenty-first century. The iPod association would up the cool-factor for books big time.One of the problems with eBooks is that nobody owns the devices to read them. Obviously that would no longer be an issue.Apple already has a distribution system in place, iTunes, that lots of folks are already comfortable using.Anyway, I’d love to hear thoughts anyone might have on this. I don’t own an iPod and probably won’t get one any time soon, nor can I imagine myself ever being a serious consumer of ebooks, but I still think it would be cool to see kids (and adults) walking around reading books on their iPods. Actually, maybe I will get an iPod after all.
In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the famous first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher, Penguin Books, is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly? For now, they are calling it a book app, and even to my mildly technophobic eyes, the results offer a glimpse onto a potentially brave new world of publishing.
I’ll admit I was suspicious when I first heard about a “book app” for On the Road, assuming I would be subjected to some tech geek’s notion of what the book of the future should look like – that is, that it would be all future and no book. So you can imagine my relief when I took the app, now for sale on iTunes, for a test drive on a borrowed iPad, and found it to be an informative, even tasteful, accessory to Kerouac’s book, not an attempt to bury the text under a blaring, technophiliac mess of gadgetry and special effects. That said, the real star of the show is the technology itself, which promises not just a slew of new apps for beloved classic texts, but also, it seems to me, a new, richer way to make books.
By now, of course, e-books are old hat, and even book apps have been around at least since the advent of the iPhone, but this most recent riff on the book app takes the technology in a new, intriguing direction. Publishers have designed apps around comic books and children’s texts, and have even built a few original book apps for nonfiction takes on the periodic table and the solar system, but On the Road is among the first wave of apps designed for the adult trade fiction and poetry markets, following on the heels of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the app for which recently startled the digerati when it knocked Marvel Comics from the #1 spot on the list of top-grossing book apps on iTunes.
It isn’t hard to see why Penguin is using On the Road to launch its adult trade fiction apps category. For one, it is a canonical classic appealing to everyone from nostalgic Boomers getting their first iPad for Father’s Day to tech-savvy teenage boys who love their digital devices almost as much as they love smoking “tea” and driving fast cars. At the same time, Kerouac’s book has a long and involved back story that begins with that famous 120-foot scroll and extends to the incestuous pack of Columbia grads and assorted hangers-on who made up the Beat Generation.
It is here, in providing the clef for the real-life figures behind the characters in Kerouac’s roman à clef and in drawing a detailed map of Kerouac’s long road to writing On the Road, that this app shines. Chris Russell, editorial director for the project at Penguin, calls the app “a virtual museum” of the book, but to my eyes it comes closer to being a refreshing take on the standard critical edition, with primary sources replacing scholarly essays. The central feature of the app is a digital copy of the published version of the book that comes with tabs readers can tap to see bios of the main characters as well background on some of the people and places Kerouac visited on his travels. Zipping around the app, one can also find maps detailing Kerouac’s travel itinerary, Kerouac’s own maps and writing notes, as well as photos of the major players and original documents from the publisher’s archives showing the book’s tortured road to publication.
Much of this added content is either pedestrian, as in the potted bios of the characters, or familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a biography of Kerouac or a history of the Beats. Some elements, though, such as the maps, do add real texture to the experience of reading the book. I read On the Road the first time twenty-some years ago when I was taking the first of several long road trips around the U.S. and I would have loved to have the graphical aid of the map of his journey to compare to my own. The app allows you to tap a location on the map and go directly to the page in the novel when Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise arrives there. I also enjoyed the audio clips of Kerouac reading from On the Road, which, for me, were like seeing the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time after listening only to their studio albums: a cult phenomenon that had never really clicked for me suddenly made a new kind of sense as I listened to Kerouac’s husky, sensual voice make music of prose.
Thus, while the concept is exciting, in this case the execution isn’t always as strong as it could be, especially given the app’s $16.99 retail price ($12.99 for the first two weeks). So it’s a good thing the app can be expanded at no new cost to the buyer. At the least, Penguin needs to make the experience more genuinely interactive by adding a talk-back or comment feature so fans can compare reactions to the novel and offer analyses of favorite passages. Even better would be a wiki-like feature to let readers add to the commentary provided by the publishers. For instance, one of the maps in the app shows “Mill City,” just north of San Francisco, as one of Kerouac’s stops on his journey. I happen to be from Mill Valley, Calif., which is next door to Marin City, where Kerouac briefly lived in barracks built for the World War II-era Marinship plant in Sausalito. It adds little to one’s reading of the book to know that Kerouac combined the two city names, but given his obsession with African-American culture, it does add context to know that, when he lived in Marin City, those barracks – now public housing, famous for being the home of rapper Tupac Shakur – were among the only truly racially integrated housing in the United States.
But even with added interactivity, there is little here you couldn’t find on a well curated website devoted to On the Road, and cynics will suggest that Penguin is only trying to push sales of a popular backlist title by forcing fans to buy a new digital edition just to see a few cool bits of memorabilia from the archives. And, of course, the cynics would have a point. That is no doubt part of what is driving this sudden interest in putting out “enhanced” digital editions of titles like On the Road and The Waste Land, and if these new iPad apps do no more than draw in a few old Kerouac and Eliot heads, this will prove to be a pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, it draws in new readers, wired iKids who love wriggling down the hypertextual wormholes of the web, then book apps of classic texts will serve a valuable, if somewhat limited, purpose. As I dipped into On the Road’s digital archives, I couldn’t help thinking of other classics that would benefit from similar treatment. Wouldn’t you love to peek into the files that famous pack rat, Hunter S. Thompson, kept on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (See my recent essay on Fear and Loathing here.) Or what about a book app for Tim O’Brien’s metafictional Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, with maps and photos and bios of the real people behind O’Brien’s characters?
But, again, if the book app phenomenon ends there, as virtual attics for the houses of a few great books, then I doubt the book app will draw many iPad users away from their treasured GarageBand and iMovie apps. The real promise here, as I see it, is the underlying technology, which, with any luck, will some day allow a kid now sitting in his eighth-grade English class playing Spider-Man: Total Mayhem HD to write an original literary app: a truly interactive novel that not only combines text with hypertext, but also with sound and images and reader responses, all at the swipe of a finger. This notion has been the holy grail of a certain school of digitally avant garde writers since the days of dial-up connections, but the technology has always been clunky, and the stories, at least in my own admittedly limited experience, damnably dull.
Two factors suggest the lackluster track record of the interactive novel may be due for a change. First, it takes only a few minutes on an iPad to see that this sleek hand-held device, with its gleaming touch screen and seemingly bottomless array of multi-media features, is a quantum leap forward in terms of flexibility and user friendliness. Second, until very recently, the minds of the people creating interactive novels have been as old school as their equipment. If the central building block of most interactive novels has until now been the codex text – otherwise known as the book – that’s because most of the people making them were raised on codex texts. Every day, as more toddlers read The Little Engine That Could on their parents’ iPads and Skype their grandparents on their smart phones, this is becoming less true, and soon a young writer whose brain is more supple than mine may well take this technology and bend it to uses that my mind, hopelessly mired in the linear, cannot even imagine.
In the meantime, old fogies like me can happily potter around in the virtual attics of classic novels like On the Road and recall a day when blowing up a venerable piece of technology took only a big stack of paper and some tape.
It’s not uncommon for a website based in Russia or Italy or Venezuela to link to The Millions. Keeping up with these mentions and trying to figure out how somebody in Milan or Caracas is reacting to an essay or review of ours has made me a frequent user of Google Translate, which lets you drop in a block of text and press “translate.” In ever magical Google fashion, a passable English translation appears.
What’s interesting to me is that over the last few years the translation seems to have become more passable and it’s now easier than ever for me to glean meaning and intent from the product of Google’s machinations.
If one assumes that the improvement in quality of these translations might continue in a linear fashion, then it follows that I might be reading a machine translated book one of these days. It’s a liberating notion. I have no affinity for languages but I have often wished I could dig into to the untranslated oeuvres of favorites like Alvaro Mutis or Ryszard Kapuscinski or read their translated books in their original forms.
But then again, the idea might inspire fear that some essentially human quality of the literature would, literally, be lost in translation. And certainly for translators, who would be replaced by stacks of processors in a climate-controlled warehouse somewhere, such a development would be devastating.
Even if computers never approach the craftsmanship of Natasha Wimmer and Edith Grossman, Google or something like might get good enough at doing the heavy lifting and letting the reader clean up the language here and there.
And indeed that might be fine for some applications even today, but using Google to create a passable translation of the blog posts of a Spanish or German blogger is one thing, using it to translate a work of literature is quite another. A translated novel needs to be perfect and Google’s success in completing undemanding translation tasks was no guarantee that it would be able to manage the nuanced language of a literary master.
An experiment was in order. In the interest of seeing how close we are to this brave new world of machine translation, I decided to give a recent work of fiction, written originally in Spanish, the Google test. I chose Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 because I haven’t read it and because I was able to find the same excerpt in both English and Spanish.
I began with the Spanish:
La primera vez que Jean-Claude Pelletier leyó a Benno von Archimboldi fue en la Navidad de 1980, en París, en donde cursaba estudios universitarios de literatura alemana, a la edad de diecinueve años. El libro en cuestión era D’Arsonval. El joven Pelletier ignoraba entonces que esa novela era parte de una trilogía (compuesta por El jardín, de tema inglés, La máscara de cuero, de tema polaco, así como D’Arsonval era, evidentemente, de tema francés), pero esa ignorancia o ese vacío o esa dejadez bibliográfica, que sólo podía ser achacada a su extrema juventud, no restó un ápice del deslumbramiento y de la admiración que le produjo la novela.
I plugged that passage into Google and it spit out:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier to read Benno von Archimboldi was at Christmas 1980 in Paris, where a university student of German literature at the age of nineteen. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish theme and D’Arsonval was obviously French theme), but that ignorance or the vacuum or the neglect literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, it detracts from glare and admiration that led to the novel.
The result is hardly poetry, but it seemed surprisingly decipherable. There are some issues with sentence structure, and trying to figure out the antecedents of the various pronouns is difficult. So, and this wasn’t an entirely unpleasant exercise, I jumped in and attempted to clean it up myself, knowing that I might be skewing the meaning of the passage badly, but interested in at least applying a certain degree of polish:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier read to Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980 in Paris, where he was a nineteen-year-old university student of German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish themes and, obviously, French themes as well), but beyond that his ignorance or a vacuum or neglect for literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, detracted from glare and admiration that he would have for the novel.
I decided that Pelletier is the nineteen year old and that Google’s muddled translation was trying to tell me that the young Pelletier is reading to this Archimboldi and though Pelletier had some rote understanding of the book D’Arsonval, he was too immature to appreciate it as he one day would.
Then I looked at Natasha Wimmer’s translation, and I saw what Google and I got right and what we got very wrong:
The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.
Pelletier is indeed the youth here, but he didn’t read to Archimboldi, he read a book by Archimboldi. Worse, Google and I totally misread Pelletier’s reaction to the book. We find that Pelletier, despite his youth, indeed appreciated D’Arsonval on a gut level, but did not yet appreciate its literary context, essentially the reverse of what the machine translation came up with. And Google and I totally flubbed the idea that the parenthetical list was a list of titles and not descriptors for D’Arsonval.
Natasha Wimmer, your job is safe.
Despite my failed experiment, machine translation might one day be able to figure out how to properly align those pronouns and antecedents and it might make short work of that complicated list of book titles, but would a machine ever, as Wimmer has, be able to convey the urgency in Pelletier’s literary discovery?
If a machine could one day do that, we might no longer think of it as a machine. It would have passed the Turing test (which tells us a machine has demonstrated intelligence when you can no longer distinguish a machine’s actions from those of a human). J.M. Cohen, a prolific translator whose efforts included Don Quixote and Rousseau’s The Confessions, put it another way: “It is impossible… to imagine a literary-translation machine less complex than the human brain itself.”
[Image credit: Jared Tarbell]