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The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan


Reading Eliot in the 21st Century

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Jun 17, 2011 01:43 PM

Talk of T.S. Eliot has recently cropped up in some unusual places: tech blogs.  This new wave of publicity isn't due to a sudden literary ardor among techies, but rather the release of a new iPad app featuring Eliot's masterpiece, The Waste Land.

In the past week, prominent tech sites such as Gizmodo, CNET, and redOrbit have lauded the app as have more mainstream news sources such as The Guardian and The New York Times.  The app, developed and published by Touch Press and Faber and Faber, is much more than just a digital version of "The Waste Land."  Indeed, it successfully blends poetry and technology to give the user an entirely new experience with Eliot's poem.

In the app, users can read dozens of annotations and a facsimile of the original manuscript with edits by Ezra Pound and Eliot's first wife, Vivien.  It also includes multiple readings of the poem from the likes of Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen, Eliot himself, and more.  Additionally, the Irish poet and actress Fiona Shaw gives an inspired performance of the poem filmed in Dublin.  A photo gallery of related images is also included.

The program also contains video commentary of the poem from varied sources such as musicians, actors, publishers, scholars, and award-winning authors.  While these aren't as thorough as essays published in critical editions of Eliot's work, they do provide strong observations about the poet, his writings, and "The Waste Land" itself in an intriguing new fashion.

The advantages of new technology applied to the act of reading are the most striking features of the application.  The manuscripts are interesting, the videos intriguing, and the annotations illuminating, but what keeps users coming back is the way it integrates these features together.  Ebook technology has been popular since the late 1990s, but "The Waste Land" app has taken that technology to a new level by reshaping the way users interact with the written word.

The app's digital annotations are far more user-friendly than their in-print counterparts.  The notes are listed beside the poem.  By simply touching a line or word the corresponding remarks open up.

Similar easy-to-navigate formats are integrated into the other features of the app.  You can switch between manuscript, audio, video, or annotated versions of the poem all from the regular text.  Additionally, while watching a video or listening to the audio, users can touch a line and the reading automatically jumps to that spot.

This app isn't cheap and, with a $13.99 price tag, it's unlikely that it will be widely downloaded by non-techies or those not already interested in Eliot.  Yet it holds great potential for the future of literature as new technology is applied to both old and new works.  All in all, "The Waste Land" application is an intriguing and enjoyable fresh look at both a classic text and the very act of reading.  It promises great things to come in the world of digital publications.



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About ArmaVirumque


( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)


In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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