Beguiling Books on Steroids Make Interactive Reading a Pleasure

Two cool interactive e-books—one about discovering New York with Moondog’s help, the other a Mozart biography—make you think more hopefully about the future of reading.

When e-books first appeared a few years ago, a lot of us assumed that in no time this new format would quickly go where print could not. We would have “books” about music, for instance, that would incorporate music into the text, or history books that would supplement text with, say, film clips or facsimiles of original documents in their entirety.

Given that technological breakthroughs so often precede and engender artistic breakthroughs, I could envision the day when novelists, artists, and musicians became multimedia artists who would use e-books to fuse disciplines into wholly new cross-platform genres, as opera composers and theatrical managers did several centuries ago.

Apparently these things take time, because so far the revolution hasn’t materialized in a big way. Part of the reason is the cost—the cost of obtaining rights to music, for instance, or the cost of producing new videos to embed in the text. But a big reason, according to people I’ve talked to in the e-book end of publishing, is that there is no great demand by readers for this type of thing. Even when offered the option of an enhanced e-book, customers often choose the version that most closely resembles a conventional printed version.

To their credit, publishers keep trying. There are now two new enhanced e-books on the market that are so good that if quality were the only hurdle to mass success, then the battle would be won already.

The novelist Hari Kunzru has issued Twice Upon a Time: Listening to New York through the e-book publisher Atavist Books (whose majority stockholder is IAC, the company that owns The Daily Beast).

In what is best described as an extended essay and not a full-length book, Kunzru describes moving to New York City and deciding to take Moondog as his guide to the metropolis.

Kunszru never spells out why he chose Moondog over Fodor’s or the Circle Line Tour or some other conventional guide, but I admire his choice so much that my first reaction was, I wish I’d thought of that.

For those who don’t make a habit of keeping up with eccentric street musicians, Moondog (1916-1999) was composer whose real name was Louis Hardin. Blinded in an explosion as a teenager, he lived for years on the streets of New York, composing and performing music, often on instruments of his own devising. He would be but a footnote in the long and elaborate history of Big Apple eccentricity but for two things: He was insanely talented and also very influential. Composers as different as Stravinsky and Philip Glass fell under the spell of his incantatory and polyrhythmic music (to call it minimalism does it a grave disservice).

The e-book fuses Kunzru’s immigrant tale with Moondog’s music and the sounds of the city, and it’s the total package, not any one element, that beguiles. Indeed, text and sound not only complement but enhance one another. After describing how Moondog was blinded by a blasting cap that exploded in his face, Kunzru writes (and the page goes black while the type goes white), “My brother is blind. This is one of the major dynamics in my life. His blindness, my sight. I can only imagine how it would feel to negotiate this city as a blind person. The open delivery hatches in the sidewalk, the fierce commuters. With so much uncertainty, so much to go wrong, there’s a need to make your own certainty, to find a system. The blind develop an appreciation for precision, repetition, knowability.” While you’re reading this, Moondog’s music—bells, drums—is playing, intermingled with the sounds of the street—traffic, a ship’s foghorn. It seems louder suddenly, the city presses in.

Not until I experienced Twice Upon a Time did it dawn on me that the sound of the city, a soundtrack that never stops, is utterly integral to any newcomer’s acclimation. And if it seems too eccentric to choose an eccentric as your guide to a new home, in this case it works perfectly. I would give this e-book to anyone who just arrived in the city and tell them to listen, to read, and to thereby recognize what a crazy, wonderful place they now call home.

The Mozart Project is not quite the hybrid creature Twice Upon a Time is. You could strip away the bells and whistles and it would still be a perfectly excellent Mozart biography. But who needs one more perfectly excellent Mozart biography? And why would you want to strip away those bells and whistles, especially once you see what they can do?

Simply enough, it’s wonderful to be able to read about the complicated Finale to the Jupiter Symphony and then click on a bar and instantly hear the music you’ve been reading about. It’s even more enlightening to hear someone such as director Nicholas Hytner talk about staging a Mozart opera. Or watch and listen while a horn player explains how the horn parts work together and separately in a particular passage. Intrigued by an excerpt from a letter by Mozart included in the text? Click on the passage and a box appears with the entire letter. And it’s not all flash—the text is written by historians, musicologists, and even a developmental psychologist, all of whom write authoritatively but never opaquely on subjects ranging from concertos to opera, from the European Grand Tour to the nature of prodigy. Text and technology complement each other at every turn.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The only thing not included in this magnificent package is an audience. I hope it finds a big one.