a pair of

ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

THERE was an un­ex­pected coup in the dig­i­tal books king­dom this month. For weeks the top-sell­ing book app for Ap­ple’s iPad was one star­ring the su­per­heroes of Marvel Comics: Iron Man, Spi­der-Man, Cap­tain Amer­ica, Wolver­ine, Thor and the rest of the gang. Then, kapow!, the masked and caped cru­saders were knocked out by a long-dead poet (and un­of­fi­cial pa­tron of this col­umn), Thomas Stearns Eliot and his 1922 mod­ernist clas­sic The Waste Land. Now, the most I usu­ally pay for an app is a few bucks, so it was a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment to shell out $16.99 for a dig­i­tal ver­sion of The Waste Land, es­pe­cially when I own sev­eral copies in the dead tree for­mat. Well, it’s worth ev­ery cent, and in­deed seems to me a model for pub­lish­ing great lit­er­a­ture in the elec­tronic era. The Waste Land app (an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of ap­pli­ca­tion, for the unini­ti­ated) was cre­ated by Touch Press in part­ner­ship with Eliot’s pub­lisher Faber & Faber. Touch Press, which had a hit with an ed­u­ca­tional app about the so­lar sys­tem, says its mis­sion is to ‘‘re­de­fine the book, rein­vent pub­lish­ing and for­ever transform the act of read­ing’’. This Eliot app cer­tainly goes some way to­wards this, and it’s the most en­joy­able e-read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve had. And I’m not alone: at the time of writ­ing, The Waste Land, re­leased at the start of the month, was the top-gross­ing iPad book app. So, how does it work? As with most po­etry, the best way to ap­pre­ci­ate The Waste Land is to hear it, and this app has two read­ings by Eliot (recorded in 1933 and 1947) as well as ones by poet Ted Hughes and ac­tors Alec Guin­ness, Fiona Shaw and Viggo Mortensen (yes, The Lord of the Rings bloke). Shaw, an Ir­ish ac­tor who per­formed The Waste Land on stage, also does a video read­ing. As you lis­ten to or watch any of these, you can fol­low the text of the poem on the screen. You can skip for­ward or back­ward to lis­ten to a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage. I did this to hear each ren­di­tion of the fa­mous lines from The Burial of the Dead sec­tion: And I will show you some­thing dif­fer­ent from ei­ther / Your shadow at morn­ing strid­ing be­hind you/ Or your shadow at evening ris­ing to meet you; / I will show you fear in a hand­ful of dust. Sir Alec tops them all, for my money. And if you are cu­ri­ous about that line about a hand­ful of dust, you can call up an an­no­tated ver­sion of the poem and learn of its links to Donne, Ten­nyson, Con­rad and, of course, the Bi­ble. There’s also a fac­sim­ile of Eliot’s orig­i­nal man­u­script, cov­ered with Ezra Pound’s hand­writ­ten ed­its. And there’s video com­men­tary by No­bel lau­re­ate Sea­mus Heaney, who ad­mits to be ter­ri­fied by The Waste Land on first meet­ing, poet and Eliot ex­pert Craig Raine and Amer­i­can writer Jeanette Win­ter­son, who asks: ‘‘Is Eliot dif­fi­cult?’’ I would love to see Shake­speare’s works in this for­mat, along with count­less other clas­sics. What a ter­rific re­source for stu­dents that would be. If this is the fu­ture of read­ing, I’m ex­cited by it.

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