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.