Tom Sutcliffe: On-screen classics with text appeal

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I surrendered the theoretical battle against e-books some time ago. Sure, you couldn't read them in the bath – or at least not with a certain amount of attendant anxiety – but then how often do I actually read a book in the bath these days? And yes, they're really lousy at lining a room... but since I could now line my rooms to a depth of 3ft and still have some books left over to use as furniture, that's become less of a virtue than it was at the very beginning of my book-buying career – when every new Penguin Modern Classic would be proudly lined up alongside its predecessor.

Added to that, theory had some strong arguments in its favour. Why do I have the complete works of Jane Austen on my shelf? Not, I think, because I like looking at the spines, but because I want to re-read them or selectively refer to some detail within – both of which can be achieved with an electronic edition. In fact, when I've found myself curious about the contents of any book that's been out of copyright for a decent length of time my instinct is always to look online – where a Project Gutenberg edition or Google Books will allow me to find what I'm looking for in a fraction of the time of a physical search.

And yet there's still a problem. Because when I read books on a screen or a Kindle I still register the experience as a kind of depleted version of what I used to have. The increase in facility doesn't quite seem to make up for the loss of physical pleasure that is – paradoxically – part of the life of the mind. I think of e-books as books with something vital missing. Two interesting developments in e-publishing this week have thrown some light on those feelings, and suggested that the future of e-publishing will probably lie in a very different notion of what a book can be.

The first is pretty conventional – though slightly vertiginous in its implications. It's the British Library's 19th Century Books app, a free iPad application that gives you access to a selection of facsimile texts from its 19th-century holdings. So, if you want to read Tennyson's Idylls of the King, you can do so with an edition "Decorated and Illuminated by the Brothers Rhead". You can't smell the pages, of course (though someone's probably working on that) but you can experience the poem in a layout that matches the aesthetic preoccupations of the time in which it was written. Or you can read a 19th-century edition of Robinson Crusoe, complete with hundreds of woodcut illustrations. And the point here isn't that the electronic version is richer than the original was. It's that your library has just expanded in the most startling fashion. Since the texts arrive by download there's no theoretical reason why such an interface wouldn't work with everything in the British Library, once the digitisation has been completed (provided it was out of copyright).

The second development was the publication of Touchpress's edition of The Waste Land, produced in association with Faber and Faber. This is far more innovative, offering a multimedia edition of the poem with all sorts of extras attached. You can read the poem on its own, entirely uncluttered by printed apparatus. But you can also call up textual notes, and audio readings of the poem – choosing from six different performances, including two different Eliot readings and one by Ted Hughes. There are also critical perspectives on the poem delivered as video clips – from commentators as varied as Craig Raine and the singer-songwriter Frank Turner – and a facsimile of Ezra Pound's annotations on Eliot's original manuscript.

I wouldn't want to sound overexcited about this. It's been beautifully designed by Touchpress (who produced an Elements application for the iPad that caused a lot of fuss when the device was first launched) but even a short hands-on throws up some shortcomings. It is, for example, oddly insulated from the internet, with nothing to link you to extraneous sources (why not a link to a YouTube recording of "Frisch Weht der Wind", for example, as Martin Rowson's brilliant cartoon Waste Land app gives you?) And it isn't as generous with its scholarly material as it might be. But it absolutely shows the way to something new – an aggregate of commentary and sound and images that you'd never find between the covers of a conventional book. My mind conceded a while ago to the electronic library. More of this kind of thing and my heart will soon join it.

'Much Ado' goes top of the Shakespearean pops

Shakespeare's theatrical songs are often a bit of an embarrassment in productions of his plays – not so much because of the lyrics (though all those heigh-hos and hey-nonny-nonnys can be a trial) but because the music is often so flabby. Directors tend to go for mournful, lute-plucking plangency or, for the jauntier numbers, a bucolic jollity.

And in both cases you usually get Elizabethan pastiche when what you really want (a little discreditably perhaps) is a great pop tune. When Kenneth Branagh was still the Great Young Hope of British theatre, he did a production of Twelfth Night for which he persuaded Paul McCartney to lend him a tune, with the result that Feste's "Come Away, Death" was a show-stopping moment, a tune that actually made you listen to the lyric, rather than pray for the moment when it would be over. It's been my Top of the Shakespearean Pops for years now but got some competition the other night from the Tate/ Tennant Much Ado.

I'm in the sceptics' camp with regard to the production (if you have to dangle your Beatrice in mid-air to get a laugh in the eavesdropping scene you may have missed the point). But the songs are great – channelling George Michael rather than John Dowland.

A winning, thrilling formula...

Bear with me on this, because I realise that the niceties of the camera positioning in broadcasts of Formula One races might not immediately strike you as an aesthetic matter. But given that point-of-view is so critical in film rhetoric – and even more so in the design of video games – I think there is a connection to the arts.

I was struck, watching Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna, by how gripping the on-board camera footage of races was. This didn't entirely make sense. The quality of miniature cameras has got much better since that footage was taken and modern coverage of F1 races can give you a cockpit eye view with startling clarity. They even have cameras that appear to be tucked under the front wing, so that you get the perspective of someone lying face down on a street luge that's travelling at 180 miles per hour. And yet the old footage seemed more viscerally exciting and immersive. It may have been the size of the screen, of course. But I suspect it was down to one detail – that in the old framing the driver's helmet could be seen at the edge of the screen.

That visible reminder that there was actually a person in the car, missing a Monte Carlo crash barrier by just inches, and the sense that you were perched on his shoulder, made all the difference. It's not really about picture quality at all. It's about having some kind of proxy on screen.





t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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