Three E-Books That Are Making the iPad Sing, Just in Time for Summer Reading Season

Technology changes quickly, and sometimes, so does my own mind. In January, I wrote a dismissive column about two e-book titles tailored for the Apple iPad, Alice for the iPad and Why the Net Matters. My main beef was that the apps, which had been lauded by the New York Times as “superbooks,” contained more glitz than substance. With its rich multimedia capabilities, the iPad has the potential to transform the experience of reading, but these titles fell so far short of the mark that I feared they’d permanently turn off the growing number of people who would like to read books on this powerful tablet.

In the past few months, however, publishers have introduced at least three new titles that bolster my confidence in the future of iPad e-books. Ironically, only one of the three is by a living author: Al Gore’s Our Choice, a book in which the former vice president urges people to take action to combat climate change. The other two are multimedia reworkings of literary classics from the 20th century: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Together, they provide a great survey of the interactive techniques publishers can use to make a book’s core textual content much more interesting and memorable. In fact, these three titles are so good that I think the publishing industry can look to them for an early set of best practices for building tablet-based books, which I’ll attempt to outline below.

And of course, they’re fun to read. With prices ranging from $4.99 for Our Choice to $13.99 for The Waste Land, these books might seem pricey compared to the typical 99-cent mobile game. But they deserve a place in any serious iPad aficionado’s app collection.

I’m thinking now that my January column was premature. It’s easy to forget that Apple’s remarkable tablet device is only 15 months old. It takes time for designers, developers, and publishers to figure out a new platform’s strengths—and when it comes to books, they’re competing with a medium that’s had half a millennium to mature. So I think it’s natural that we’re only now seeing some real innovation in the category of standalone, “appified” e-books (as distinct from the more conventional static texts that you can easily download and read using Apple’s iBooks app or Amazon’s Kindle app).

For sheer multimedia richness, Our Choice is the standout among these three e-book apps. The book is littered with “wow” moments right from the opening screen, which shows a spinning Earth, complete with the reader’s location as a pulsing blue dot. There are slick videos, arresting full-screen photographs, and extensive narration from Gore himself. One memorable information graphic shows 2,300 years of world population statistics; as you scroll forward through the years by swiping your finger from right to left, the chart’s y axis compresses to dramatize the exponential growth since 1800.

Nearly every image, chart, and graphic in the book includes similar interactive elements, and they’re all tied together by a long, scrolling ribbon of thumbnails along the bottom of the screen that functions in place of a table of contents. It’s a tour de force in interaction design the likes of which I haven’t seen since the golden era of CD-ROM edutainment titles in the mid-1990s.

It would be wrong, of course, to focus on the multimedia bells and whistles to the exclusion of the book’s message. The app’s main text is lifted directly from the print edition of Our Choice, which first appeared in late 2009. It’s a solution-oriented sequel to Gore’s alarming 2006 film/book/lecture An Inconvenient Truth. The main point is to survey the technology and policy steps governments and their citizens must take soon if we’re to have any hope of slowing greenhouse-gas emissions and heading off catastrophic changes in world climate. If the interactive elements actually got in the way of this critical story (as they do in Alice for the iPad and Why the Net Matters) I’d be worried. But in practice, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Three E-Books That Are Making the iPad Sing, Just in Time for Summer Reading Season”

  1. David says:

    So what, authors have to become programmers too now? What the hell is happening to the world when a person has to hold two degrees to have any measure of success?

    The world is just getting tighter and tighter for people who have creativity, but no lengthy education or social life.

    It’s either that or my view of myself should be far, FAR lower… The only reason I became an author was because of the Kindle allowing me to do it myself without a middle man, or excessive restrictions in the industry.