Review: The Waste Land iPad app

Review: The Waste Land iPad app

Rachael Beale has kindly reviewed The Waste Land iPad app for FutureBook: Rumours of the death of the enhanced ebook have been greatly exaggerated. While we wait for the EPUB3 standard to be finalised, adopted and developed for, book apps are continuing to emerge in the App Store, and none more eagerly anticipated - by me, at least - than Faber Digital's iPad app of The Waste Land. First hinted at via Henry Volans' comment at the Future Book conference in November 2010 that they were working on a "major literary project" with TouchPress, The Waste Land was confirmed as the subject at New York's Tools of Change conference in February 2011. It seems the ideal platform for a work so steeped in modernity, which as Jeanette Winterson says in the app's video Perspectives, foresaw so early that "we would become mesmerised by gadgets, and novelties, and forget completely the reason for being here at all".

So is it worth the wait? On sheer value-for-money grounds, the answer has to be a resounding 'yes'. In terms of books alone, the app includes the full text of The Waste Land (print RRP £9.99), a facsimile of the manuscript (print RRP £19.99), and detailed notes excerpted from A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot (print RRP £9.99), making it an absolutely invaluable resource for students in particular (all of these print volumes contain other material, but it's the closest analogy). However, the texts are merely the bottom layer of a triple-decker cake with some very fancy icing.

The Waste Land opens on a cleanly-designed home screen, dominated by the title - curiously, not in Faber's house font (perhaps intended as a statement of differentiation?). The eight main options are Poem, Performance, Perspectives, Readings, Notes, Manuscript, Tips and Gallery, with two footer-menu options for Credits and Settings plus links, which open externally, to the TouchPress and Faber websites. 

In most cases, however, it's possible to navigate between sections without needing to return to home screen, for what really marks The Waste Land out is its fantastic discoverability. Exceptionally easy movement between the various sections is enabled by simple footer icons on each screen. Reading the published poem and interested in the manuscript edition of the same page? In portrait view, tap the page icon in the footer. Want to listen to the poem read aloud by a selection of prominent actors and poets? Highlight a line in the text, tap the speaker icon and pick from the list. Looking for line-by-line notes? Flip to landscape view and the notes slide out automatically. Got lost? Tap the crosshairs icon in the bottom-right to open a Navigator on the right, giving you a helicopter view of the whole poem. And if for some reason you haven't managed to spot this yourself, it's all explained in the Tips. 

Movement between the captioned version of the Manuscript, the Gallery and the Perspectives is less smooth and requires a return to the home screen. The Manuscript with captions provides some additional commentary, but it's somewhat irksome not to be able to move or resize the caption boxes. For a proper view, it's best to navigate via the full text - and it's worth doing, because the reproduction is excellent. It's possible to zoom in close enough to view only a handful of lines, and the images pick up even the grain and watermark in the paper.

It's unlikely you'll want to spend much time in the Gallery, as it contains a somewhat eclectic selection; these appear to have been included primarily as supporting material for the Perspectives. The latter, however, is a wonderful resource, providing video clips of various figures, including Seamus Heaney, Jeanette Winterson and Faber poetry editor Paul Keegan, discussing the poem, its context and their reactions to it. Footage filmed for the BBC's 2009 Arena programme on Eliot is supplemented with specially-shot additional interviews. There are no visible controls for the clips, but it's possible to pause and restart by tapping, and rewind or fast-forward approximately by pressing and dragging across the clip (it might have been nice to include this information in the Tips, or to provide controls). Although timings aren't provided, so it's not clear exactly how much footage is included, I did end up spending most of an afternoon watching through.

Two small gripes on the Perspectives: firstly, screen real estate is weighted too much towards the text rather than the clips. The text area on the right is used occasionally to display the relevant section of the poem under discussion - although, oddly, not necessarily the specific lines, and without the highlighting used in the audio synching; it's also used to display images from the Gallery, but rarely does either type of additional content add much. I would have preferred to be able to choose to maximise the clips, or at least, a screen split that was slightly more in favour of the video. Secondly, it's a little too easy to 'lose' the section altogether in reorientating the screen; if you accidentally flip into portrait view by nudging your iPad too vigorously, a return to landscape brings you back to the annotations, and you'll need to head Home to retrieve the clips.

The range of audio options is slightly overwhelming. Besides two different recordings of T.S. Eliot reading his own work (one from 1933, one from 1947), the app includes versions by the actors Alec Guinness and Viggo Mortensen (for those in need of the American take on things), and the audio track of Fiona Shaw's video performance, as well as a reading by Ted Hughes. Barring the odd glitch, the recordings are synched line-by-line, allowing you to highlight a line and then hear it read aloud by the voice of your choice. It would be nice, however, if it wasn't necessary to restart the audio every time you moved on a full section in the poem - a 'Play All' option, perhaps, which would also have been useful in the Perspectives. 

So far, this is a very impressive repurposing and packaging of existing content, but The Waste Land also includes a "specially filmed" video of Fiona Shaw's performance of the poem, developed with the director Deborah Warner in the 1990s and toured to great acclaim. You can either watch the performance - filmed in a decaying and sparsely furnished Dublin room, the perfect backdrop for the poem's air of melancholy and fragmentation - full-screen, in landscape view, or flip to portrait to watch it synched line-by-line with the text. Shaw and Warner's version provides a dramatically different reading of the poem, and hence new insights, inevitably placing more emphasis on the cacophony of different voices.

Having said that this would make a great resource for students, my one major complaint about the app is the quality control for the annotations, which really needed inserting with more care and attention - and a more thorough proofread after development had been completed. Each note is preceded by a section and line number, but the section numbers are more often than not wrong; some notes are incomplete, missing punctuation or with typographical errors (typos crop up in some of the Gallery and Manuscript captions also). More annoyingly, several of the notes refer the reader to B.C. Southam's Introduction to the printed Notes, which is not included in the app. It's also a bit of a shame that there is no use made of direct cross-linking, when the reader is referred in an annotation back to notes or lines elsewhere - given that cross-linking is something on which TouchPress have historically been particularly strong. 

The Waste Land is an exemplar of how the price sensitivity of App Store shoppers is undermining the real value of content. I've heard more than one comment that it seems "quite expensive", at £7.99. Yet when you look at what it actually includes and the production work that lies behind it (just take a glance at the lengthy credits list!), it seems incredibly cheap. Listed alongside apps priced for a handful of pennies, the law of economic relativity bites hard. I really wish it didn't - the wealth of content provided by Faber and TouchPress, and the beautifully fluid way that content has been packaged, make this an absolute delight for any poetry nut, or indeed, anyone with an interest in our cultural history. Bravo.


The Waste Land iPad app is now available in the App store

Rachael Beale has spent much of her career experimenting with combinations of words and technology, writing and editing for technical companies, or doing technical things for literary ones.

Amongst other things, she is a web manager for the London Review of Books, and an advisory board member and contributor for

You can follow her on Twitter @flossieteacake