Chaos: The Enhanced Edition – review

A few weeks ago I mentioned the enhanced edition of Chaos: The Making of a New Science by James Gleick.

Now, I love the original book. I first read it back in 1989, I think. That was a paperback, which I picked up because it had the following quote from Douglas Adams on the front:

“An awe-inpiring book.  Reading Chaos gave me the sensation that someone had just found the light switch”

That sums it up very well.  I’ve no desire to get all stern-faced and pompous here, but that book changed my understanding of how the world works. It still amazes me how many supposed experts – I’m looking at you, economic pundits of the past few years – still don’t understand what this book has to say. I think it’s a terrible thing that chaos is not taught as part of high school maths.  Chaos, in other words, gets the thumbs up from me. It’s a great book.

But how well has it been ‘enhanced’?  You may remember from my previous post that the book begins with this impressive little video:

Pretty nice, huh?  But how much video is there in the rest of the book, and how does it ‘enhance’ the text?

Well, there are just six more videos throughout the remaining 380 pages (paperback equivalent), each on average less than a minute long.

As you’ve paid a fiver extra to get this video (£11.99 versus the £6.99 ‘non-enhanced’ version in the iBookstore), that’s pretty rubbish.

Each of these videos explains a different concept with motion graphics and a voiceover. The script of the voiceover is largely taken from the main text, so it’s either what you’ve just read or what you’re just about to read. The effect of this is to highlight how these 6 videos have just been slapped on top of an existing product, rather than integrated more fully into it.

This is a real shame because this book should really benefit from the relevant speeds of video and text in communicating information. In some (possibly most) circumstances video is the slower medium, hence we expect film adaptations to cut out large chunks of the novels they are based on. In this subject, though, video can get concepts such as the Mandlebrot set across far quicker than prose.  But this benefit is lost, though, when video is just sprinkled on top of the text, and the text is still expected to do the heavy lifting. The text never discusses the videos that the reader has just been shown, or even acknowledges that they exist.

Indeed, in the original paper version there were some colour plates in the middle which contained a series of stills of images taken from a movie of the Mandlebrot set. Bizarrely, those stills are still included here, and they are still in the middle of the book. No effort has been made to move them to a more suitable part of the text or make them relevant to the new format. It’s as clear an indication as any as to how cosmetic the ‘enhancements’ are.

What we learn from this enhanced edition is that, if we’re to add video to non-fiction, then the text needs to be written around the video as much as the video needs to support the text. This will no doubt give publishers a hot flush, for we’re talking about a different version of the text to the non-enhanced version.

But there is an existing model that might be useful to think about here. Consider the tie-in book for a large budget television series. I’m talking about the type of documentary series where Prof. Brian Cox enigmatically stands alone among 1080p mountains whilst the Cosmos explodes above him – you know the sort of thing. Both the series and the book contain the same information (more or less). But the book does not contain the documentary script, nor does Prof Cox stand on his mountain and read out the book. The research that went into that series has been written up twice, and shaped for each of the different media.

Enhanced non-fiction book apps that contain video (and ideally, interactive elements to play with, something that would have been very welcome here) are going to be prestige, big budget productions. They are most likely going to be linked to big names and television exposure. We can imagine how the research and filming of these big BBC or Discovery series could be used to create three separate versions – the TV series, the tie-in book, and the book app. Each would get the same information across according to the strengths of their own media.

In this scenario, enhanced books are going to be very rewarding. It is possible to imagine how the enhanced book app would be the premier version, combining the strengths of both the TV series and the book with interactivity.  That, I think, is going to be where these are heading.

As for Gleick’s Chaos, it’s still as brilliant as it ever was. But the enhanced version is no more brilliant than the non-enhanced version and, unless the price difference is removed, I have to say that the normal version is the better buy.

The Waste Land App

The Waste Land app is really good.

This app is Faber & Faber’s love letter to T.S. Elliot’s bewildering death-soaked modernist poem. What, you might wonder, could they do to convince people to pay £9.99 for a 400+ line poem you can easily read for free online?

The answer is pretty much everything. There’s the text, of course, and scans of the original manuscripts. There’s 6 different readings from the likes of Alec Guiness, Ted Hughes and Elliot himself. There’s extensive notes, photographs, and video interviews with wise folk including Seamus Heaney and Jeanette Winterson. Best of all, there’s video of a terrific performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw.  It’s an impressive haul, even if much of it is plundered from a 2009 BBC Arena documentary. Here’s a video from the developers Touch Press to explain it all

(warning: goes on a bit.)

What we have, essentially, is the ‘DVD extras’ model of a tablet book – there’s the central piece of work plus a variety of added extras that aim to shed light on the work itself. It’s an approach that seems ideal for wilfully obscure modernist poems.

But what works really well here, and what justifies the price tag, is how well those extras are integrated with the text itself. Tapping on individual lines snaps the reading or performance to those words. Highlighting an explanatory note on the poem highlights the text concerned.  The overriding experience of engaging with The Waste Land is the challenge of getting to grips with it, and these extra features are perfectly aligned with that. The result is an app that seems more than the sum of its parts.  It understands that you are wrestling with the text, and it is basically designed to help you in any way it can.

I first read this poem about two years ago. I have no real education in English literature, but I am engaged in a doomed ongoing attempt to make sense of the early 20th Century.  Occasionally I expose myself to modernist works and try to understand that insane leap from the Victorian mind to that of the ‘Modern’. When I first read the text I was intrigued, but I didn’t understand it.  Having explored the app at length, I still don’t understand it. But I feel that I fail to understand it at a far deeper level than before.  This is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, a significant step.

What, though, does this app tell us about the emerging world of tablet books?

Well, the amount of video mounts up.  This app is nearly 1GB in size and, whilst I appreciate Moore’s Law, in a world of 16GB iPads that is an issue.  You’re not going to have a whole library of these things.  And most of the video, in the ‘Perspectives’ section, is at a tiny resolution in a little box – it’s only Fiona Shaw’s performance that is full screen quality.

There are a few niggles with the developers getting carried away with rotating the iPad as a form of function selection – something that is never intuitive. Should you be watching the ‘Perspective’ videos and turn the screen to see what happens, you’ll lose the video and turning the tablet won’t bring it back – you’ll need to return to the main menu and select it again.  But as I say, these are niggles rather than serious problems.

It’s another app based on a short, pre-existing ‘classic’ text – we’ll see this cropping up quite a lot as we talk about other tablet books.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of this app is Fiona Shaw’s performance of the poem. It’s really good.  Where Viggo Mortensen’s reading, for example, suggests that he understands the poem about as well as I do, Fiona Shaw is clearly in a different league. She gets it, and watching her convinces you that the poem is worth the effort.

This raises the idea of author performance as part of tablet books. In a world where literary festivals and author readings are growing in popularity as publishers decline, it’s easy to imagine how video performances of author readings, integrated with the text in this manner, could be a big draw.

It will be interesting to see if any authors explore this route – or if the filesizes needed for lengthy video will prove to be a real problem.