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Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4: Minne Buwalda 1994  


The expanded Book Toolkit, Voyager Company

Compared to the printed word, digital media offer a number of advantages: entire libraries can be conveniently stored and the information in the books is more easily accessible. Texts can also be combined with film or sound, for example.

Despite all of these advantages, many readers still prefer the old-fashioned book, as though they simply can't distance themselves from the tangibility and illusion of constancy still offered in the Gutenberg galaxy.

The Californian Voyager Company has attempted to combine the familiar and trusted form of the tangible book with the technical possibilities of the computer in its Expanded Books.

The Expanded Book Toolkit, marketed in 1992, consists of an extensive set of instructions and two floppy disks, containing the Toolkit and the Expanded Book Sampler, respectively. The latter includes examples of already-expanded books. Among the titles in the Sampler are classics like Alice in Wonderland, Dorian Gray and Moby Dick, social-critical works like Savage Inequalities and virtual reality books like William Gibson's Neuromancer. Voyager's
intended this package not primarily for readers, but for publishers and book manufacturers in search of new media. Those hoping to buy half a library for peanuts will be disappointed by the sampler: the titles are incomplete (most contain only one chapter). They only serve as examples of what the Expanded Book Toolkitis capable of.

You do not need to be a computer whiz kid to begin working on an expanded book. The Voyager instructions allow the digital idiot to become acquainted with the possibilities of the program step by step. If your computer has enough memory and a Hyper Card (version 2.1 or later), and you have a Macintosh word-processing file containing the text to be processed, then you can be well on your way to your first expanded book after a few hours of fiddling. (Voyager has also included a file with a text to try the program on.)

A few simple commando's cause the text to appear in a ready-made layout. You don't even have to do anything to the contents. The only typographic problems encountered by the maker of expanded books are widows and orphans, which must be removed by adapting the spacing on the pages concerned.

Besides the user-friendly instructions, Voyager offers yet another advantage for beginners. The model upon which theExpanded Book Tools are based is well known to all of us: the tangible book. Even though we are dealing with HyperCard documents in which text, image, film and sound can be combined, the user always has the reassuring idea that he has a book in his hands. He can 'leaf through' the documents, using the 'progress gauge' to see how far along he
is; he can underline words and write his comments in the margin; he can mark pages with a paper clip or by dog-earing them. And when the document is closed, he can choose a place marker so that he can find his place again the next day.

Marketing considerations probably caused Voyager to choose this familiar and trusted model. There is probably less danger of consumers being put off by a new medium when it is presented in the form of an older one. Yet, I am not so pleased with this mixed solution. Because all of those things that are so natural in a real, tangible book seem forced and time-consuming on a screen. When I moved my cursor to the upper righthand corner of the screen in order to dog-ear a page with a click of the mouse, I felt much like a handicapped person must feel.

If it was only a question of dog-earing on the monitor, the choice would have been a simple one: better just read the real thing. But Voyager's electronic books offer one or two extra features along with their old-fashioned book-like character. The name says it already: 'expanded' books. They contain a 'find-menu' - a blessing in comparison with the traditional index. No more wrestling with your fingers to keep four different places at once; using an easy-to-read row of page numbers on the screen, you can just swap places to your heart's delight.

Voyager has expanded the regular find-menu with an option that produces the sought-after concept 'in context', i.e., together with three words preceding and anteceding it in the sentence. However, most of the time this 'context' was still too cryptic to really make anything of.

Expanded Books''' most valuable addition is the capacity to annotate and cross-reference the original text. The maker of an expanded book has various different approaches to annotation at his disposal. He can choose textual annotations that appear in a separate text window at the bottom of the page. He can annotate using an image, a quick-time movie, or sound. The instructions give an example of a sound note for the word 'sea' in Moby Dick: if you try the annotation and your Macintosh speaker is turned up, you hear the sound of surf. The sound of surf? I thought that the action of Moby Dick occurred on the open sea, among the icebergs, at a latitude of at least 60 degrees north of the equator. Has the whaler suddenly run aground off the California coast? Why split hairs?, they must have thought at the Voyager offices, The sea is the sea.'' And indeed, I am indulging in a hair-splitting complaint in this digression. A book with sound, what more do you want?

As well as regular notes, expanded books offers the possibility of cross referencing, making annotations that refer to a word or passage in the text itself. These cross references can be defined as 'one-way' or 'both ways', and constitute the gateway to the interactive book, in my view.

Regular notes usually are of the 'dead end' variety, even if they are decorated with a moving image or sound. Because the reader has only one option after reading such a note: back to the main road, back to the linear text.

However, if the cross-references are used well, a network of roads is created that can be navigated in a thousand and one ways, allowing every reader to choose his own. Texts with a fragmentary structure are best suited to this aim, and the question, of course, is when authors will begin to write using this interactive model.

Upon reading the Expanded Book Sampler, you get the impression that the Voyager co-workers themselves have profited remarkably little from the possibilities offered by their own program - most of the titles contain no notes or cross references. The file upon which the most work has been done is //Alice in Wonderland:// the file is called Annotated Alice. But they have done nothing more than footnotes and a few simple cross references.

In closing, a final shout of praise about the annotations of expanded books: they are 'disguised' by the annotated remark and thus constantly provoke the reader's curiosity. I usually don't refer to notes at all. Notes at the end of a text involve too much hunting around and the tiny, studious lettering of foot-notes puts me off. But I read practically all of the notes in the expanded books. The magic of conjuring up a new window seems to work.

The annotation marks (underlining, numbers) can be turned off, allowing you to read a clean, unannotated text if you want to. And even if the reader has spent an enthusiastic evening scrawling notes all over the margins and has underlined half of the text, he can start over again the next day with a clean slate.

translation jim boekbinder