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“Death Metal, Toilet Paper, and Moby-Dick”

An email with the subject line “Death Metal, Toilet Paper, and Moby-Dick” is bound to catch my attention. Here’s what I learned from that note: While researching Moby-Dick, the Arcade Sunshine Media team found all sorts of “insane pop-culture references to Melville’s classic, including toilet paper rolls with the entirety of the novel printed on it.” There wasn’t a place for all that information in the app, so they created a fact-a-day twitter feed (@MobyDickApp) “dedicated to the weird/funny/fascinating ephemera” and a blog with some of their “favorite finds.” Moby-Dick inspired shoes, anyone?

And if that’s not enough whale for you, there’s Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? The app sent our reviewer Paula Willey to that book, which she found both “fun and thought-provoking.”

Title: Moby-Dick
A Digital Odyssey
Herman Melville
Arcade Sunshine Media, LLC
Platform: iOS, requires 4.2 or later ; iBook2, requires iOS 5

Gr 8 Up-In Jeff Smith’s epic graphic novel Bone (Scholastic), Fone Bone carries one book with him in his bag at all times—Moby-Dick. It is his favorite book. He even dreams about it. But it’s a running gag that whenever he tries to share it with his companions, they fall asleep–so reliably that at one point, cornered by Rat Creatures, they insist that he start reading the book, whereupon all the Rat Creatures fall asleep and the Bone cousins live to struggle on another day.

This is the reputation that Moby-Dick has to contend with. Generations of students have groaned and rolled their eyes when assigned to read it. But it is a wonderful book, full of adventure and action and crazy people and unexpected humor.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

Readers must be convinced that Melville’s lengthy tangents, immense vocabulary, and obsolete cultural and historical references are as interesting in their own right as the fabulously compelling main tale. Ishmael himself tells readers, “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”

It’s not entirely clear that this enhanced version of Melville’s tale is one of them. To footnote or not to footnote a classic is a difficult choice—it’s great to have explanatory information immediately available, but it can interfere with the reading experience and mar the author’s intent. iPad apps do not have to make this choice. Footnote material can be hidden on a tab or a sidebar, or called up as a floating window. There are many ways to provide supplemental information unobtrusively. Unfortunately, this ebook avails itself of none of them.

Supplemental media is arrayed in a gallery, arranged by theme. There are diagrams of ships, maps, a nautical glossary, and some gems—a 1922 silent film of seamen cutting up a whale; an interactive timeline of Melville’s life—but there are also a number of talking-head videos of English professors reading and explicating.

An onboard dictionary provides definitions of many words, but does not appear to have been customized for this book’s most obscure vocabulary: a tap on “sovereign” yields a definition, but on “catarrh” the app is silent. But there are note-taking options for students and a twitter feed to communicate with others reading the book.

Switching back and forth between the text and the multimedia gallery is by means of a single tap; however, the table of contents is not interactive, so navigation within the book is limited to turning pages or using the uncalibrated scrubber bar. In a book that is perhaps more often discussed than it is read, it would be useful to be able to skip directly to Chapter 82.

In addition, the linear navigation will result in first-time readers having to page through the tongue-in-cheek “Etymology” and lengthy “Extracts” that preface the book before reaching that most famous of first lines: “Call me Ishmael.”—Paula Willey, Pink Me

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