Why a 17th-Century Text Is the Perfect Starting Point for Reinventing the Book

Shakespeare's The Tempest is meant to be read out loud, discussed, and lives in the public domain.

Wikimedia Commons/Luminary Digital Media LLC

Good morning, class. I'd like you all to open your books to Act I, Scene 2, Line 398.

Pages rustle as everyone flips through their books in search of that spot.

"Usually there's a whole lot of shuffling," says Bryn Mawr professor Katharine Rowe. But not if the class is using an app she and Notre Dame professor Elliott Visconsi built. In their app of Shakespeare's Tempest students can just enter "1.2.398" and be transported there immediately. Or, alternatively, search for the words: "Full fathom five thy father lies."

That tool "gets my students on the line, at the same time, almost instantly. That's a big deal for a Shakespeare prof," she says. "We get our brains faster into the text that way."

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And this is just a simple search. The features of their Tempest app go far, far beyond search. Readers can listen to actors perform the script (and the text will scroll along as they do). For key passages, they can compare a set of alternative theatrical interpretations. They can see expert commentaries embedded in the text's margins. Teachers can leave their own comments and questions for their students. Students can respond, ask questions, and chat about the text. It is a fully realized digital book, an embodiment of a pedagogy that values interaction between a reader and an author and among readers themselves.

"It's premised on the idea that you learn best when you create," Visconsi told me.

Last year, Rowe and Visconsi founded a startup, Luminary Digital Media, for building the app. The company received initial support from Notre Dame, which funded software development at the university's Center for Research Computing.

"I didn't begin my life as an academic imagining I would be an entrepreneur," Rowe mused. There's a "feedback loop," she says, between building a business and thinking about the possibilities of reading technology. "I'm just more focused. I get stuff done really efficiently -- because you have to in an entrepreneurial world." But at the same time, "I'm finding my literary skills incredibly valuable in software development, which is not something I would have expected. ... My ability to very precisely verbally describe how a reader engages a text, what a reader needs, turns out to be a huge asset is software development."

Down the road, Visconsi and Rowe hope to apply the platform they've built to other texts. The Tempest, Visconsi said via email, "is only the proof of concept." With the ability to embed actors' interpretations, the app is well-suited for other plays, but the hope is that they can expand it beyond drama to novels, essays ("of course, the form of the essay is itself an intensely social genre" Rowe says), and religious texts, which, because of their long history of commentary and debate, really stand to benefit from the way the app incorporates other scholarly perspectives.

The most immediate value of their work lies in the greater understanding and enjoyment students of The Tempest will gain in reading the play on their app. But at least one professor in Denmark has another reason for bringing it into the classroom: as a primary source for a course on apps as the next generation of classic literature, looking at how they are rewriting, or, at least, revisiting classic texts. In part because such texts tend to be public domain and therefore available for innovation, these older texts are at the heart of contemporary innovation on what the book will become.