The Expanded Books Project

Michael Cohen‘s partially autobiographical review of the “The Birth of the Ebook” appeared on TidBITS  in slightly different form from the original article published in The Magazine in December 2013.

Voyager-frameI had the chance to work with Michael during my tenure at The Voyager Company 1989–1992 and his expertise in literature combined with an uncanny ability to catch inaccuracies and errors in books was an amazing complement to the truly eclectic group of team members at Voyager. The way Michael describes my initial contribution to the Expanded Books Project sheds a light:

Florian Brody, a loquacious Austrian with a background in computer science, film, and linguistics, had put a couple of pages of “The Sheltering Sky” on the PowerBook, turned it on its side, and asserted, “This looks like a book!” You could almost see cartoon lightbulbs flaring over people’s heads.”

 The time at Voyager not only shaped my future work, it also allowed me to contribute to the creation of the first electronic books at a time when a laptop was a curiosity. We showed it to one of the many authors we talked to and after reviewing he asked for the price of such a device – it was over $2000, a lot of money for the time. He commentedEB_interface that this may be a lot of money but probably justifiable for such a book, not being aware that he would also get a fully functional computer “for free”.

Sometimes late 1988 I got my hands on an Apple Scanner, a wonderful device good for almost nothing with its 4-bit deep images but great to generate input for early OCR software. HyperCard was just becoming the development platform of choice for the multimedia on the Mac. I still recall the day I sheltering Skyscanned the pages of Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky and looked at them on the 13 inch screen of the most expensive computer I had ever bought (some $12,000 – over $23,000 in 2013 money), flipped through the pages, excited about the ability to go back to a page rather than randomly scrolling around. Page consistency – the ability to find something at the same place you saw it the last time – is one of the essential elements of eBooks compared to word processor (old terminology) files. There is a reason why we gave up scrolls for codices for the most part some 1000 years ago. (The Torah Scrolls: exceptio probat regular.) The issue of the loss of location in digital document merits a separate blog entry (forthcoming).

It was late in the evening and I had this HyperCard stack with some 60 pages of The Sheltering Sky. I needed to share my newest finding. I had met Bob Stein briefly at the 3rd Microsoft CD-ROM Conference in Seattle in March of 1988 when the Apple CD-ROM drive was introduced. As I supported Apple Austria, driving their multimedia efforts, I had a highly valued – and extremely expensive – AppleLink account with the coveted handle of A.MM (for Austria Multimedia). There was nobody I could call and share my excitement so I sent the whole stack to Mr. Stein in California and went to bed. Next morning I found a response in my inbox if I would be interested to come to California and build this book.

I spent a long summer in 1989 and then two years 1990–1992 at Voyager on Pacific Coast Highway in  Santa Monica in a building that was neither earthquake safe (= low rent) nor had it decent power or heating (save your files every 2 minutes as the next power failure due to circuit breaker overload from under-table heaters) but we had daily lunch cooked by a South African professional dancer, sunset calls over the Intercom (don’t miss the green flash) and boogie boards for the rare lunch breaks.

MacbethTitleScreen

We initially published Jurassic Park, Alice in Wonderland and the Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the launch at MacWorld with the dinosaur sounds in Jurassic Park being the most loved feature. “Multimedia” was surely the way to go. It was up to Voyager to turn the “nice add-ons” into media elements that truly expanded the book and the work Michael did on Macbeth. With hardware as well as software no longer available, it will be a museum project to see Macbeth again: “When shall we three meet again? — In thunder, lightning, or in rain? — When the hurlyburly’s done, — When the battle’s lost and won. (Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 1).

Thanks to Michael Cohen, The Magazine and TidBITS for republishing this article and make it available to be found online.

Michael – if you’re interested in presenting Macbeth again – I may be able to find a venue.

 

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