Best Literary App Ever?

There’s a legitimate case to made for this new iPad version of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as being one of the coolest literature-related apps/enhanced ebooks yet. Some serious work was put into this by Touch Press and Faber & Faber (the poetry publishing that published “The Waste Land” in 1922), and it shows. What we see is content that genuinely does enhance the reading experience, as opposed to the somewhat prevalent let’s-add-some-multimedia-content-to-text-and-sell-it approach.

The added content, specifically content that makes sense for readers of literary texts, is certainly an exemplary model of what can be possible for enhanced literary books. You can check it out at the App Store here. It’s a pretty attractive list of features: a filmed performance of a reading of the poem; audio readings from Eliot himself, Ted Hughes, and Alec Guinness, that sync with the text; lots of annotations and line-by-line notes; video perspectives and commentaries filmed by the BBC from the literary lights such as Seamus Heaney; and one of my favorites, original manuscript pages with Ezra Pound’s handwritten edits and notes.

Touch Press has a video (A walk through “The Waste Land”) where we can see the app/ebook in action.

As Laura Miller at Salon rightly points out (“The Waste Land”: T.S. Eliot takes the app store”), economics factor into the paucity truly well-done ebooks. They’re expensive to produce, which means they’re going to be expensive to buy — “a $14 version* of a famously enigmatic early 20th-century poem written by a decidedly unsexy dead guy — and in the public domain, no less!” — but what Touch Press and Faber & Faber have produced actually feels worth the money.

Despite the hefty price tag, “The Waste Land” on iPad brings some hope for what the future of literature-based apps could look like. If this is a success, couldn’t this lead to similar projects? It certainly could. And new versions of literature, regardless of the medium in which they occur, are a good thing. New iterations of literary classics introduce them to a newer generation of readers (in this case, perhaps the iPad generation), and a new opportunity for the rest of us to revisit something old, in a new way. That’s healthy, whether we’re talking about readers who consume their texts in digital form, or as paperback Penguin Classics.

The Guardian has an enjoyable review (“The Waste Land for iPad Lovers”): could the advent of good, really well-produced enhanced ebooks represent a watershed moment, a crossing of CP Snow’s two cultures? Maybe. Who knows. And this is spot-on:

“One lesson of this remarkable app is that these things can probably be done only as partnerships. In this case, the partners were Touch Press (which possesses the formidable software and creative skills required to do this stuff well), Faber & Faber (which owns the rights to Eliot’s work) and the BBC (which knows how to film and dramatise).”

That sort of marriage of literature and technology seems to make the most sense when it involves the right kinds of expertise.

And a closing thought. James Joyce’s Ulysses comes out of copyright next year. What if there were an iPad version of Ulysses?

*For the sake of comparison, a Norton edition of “The Waste Land” is about $12 on


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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