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Buy The Sonnets for iPad

I’ve been tidying the bookshelves today, flicking through my collection and finding enclosures that raise a smile and prick the memory. Even something as ephemeral as a receipt can help you to remember who and where you were when you bought a book. Annotations and highlighting are persistent. Okay, they might fade, but they’ll always be there. You can lend books, they feel good in the hand, they have a spiritual quality. eBooks have no place in this world, right?

So, I was ready to dislike Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the app, but this is nothing short of a publishing milestone and represents fantastic value for money. At the heart of the app is a clean, pleasing copy of the sonnets, and A Lover’s Complaint. With the touch of a button, the footnotes to the Arden edition appear in the margin. These are the real deal, making the app useful to any serious reader. However, you can also choose to read the poems with a commentary by Don Paterson instead. This is where the app gains a pulse as, reading Paterson, I’m mentally transported to a cosy pub, where we natter about the Bard over a couple of pints. Take his commentary on Sonnet 20, for example: ”Dude’, as Aerosmith sang with such vacant gusto, ‘looks like a lady’. OK: this is as good a place as any to clear this up. I feel I will scarcely be believed, but this poem has often been cited as evidence of Shakespeare’s non-homoerotic intent. No: really. As levels of denial go, this is right up there with the health-benefits of Marlboros’. I’m often left feeling that poetry has a public image problem, the sort that bit snooty French winemakers on the bum when New World upstarts started hiring polo necked designers and marketers to conquer the world. Reading the sonnets with Paterson is a joy. With a few more commentaries like these, classic poetry could redefine itself and find a new readership to boot.

I’ve not even mentioned the fabulous video performances at the heart of the app yet. Some of these are utterly endearing. Cicely Berry, CBE’s reading of sonnet 129 is measured and weary yet, at the end, she delivers a schoolgirlish look of approval to camera. Ben Crystal’s reading of sonnet 141, delivered in Original Pronunciation, is a salutary reminder of the warmth and unpretentiousness of our national poet. The makers of the app have wisely front loaded it with a gamut of names: Stephen Fry, David Tennant, Kim Cattrall, Simon Russell Beale, Dominic West, and I hope that this constellation of stars helps the app to fly off the virtual shelves of the App Store.

My only beef with the almost equally great Waste Land app was that there was nowhere for the reader to keep his/her own notes (a major fag, especially if you’re using it to complement your own classroom teaching, as I am). This issue has been resolved here, and the app allows you to add notes, favourites, and share sonnets via email.

eBooks might have added a format to the publishing world, but Touch Press and Faber’s recent apps have added the heart.