A Kindle version of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road will run you $12.99, substantially more than the couple of bucks that a paperback version costs. But let’s sidestep the “print versus digital” debate for a moment. Because for the same price as the e-book version, you can now purchase an On the Road app for your iPad, available today in App Store (iTunes link). Perhaps the next debate in publishing will be e-book versus app.

The new app contains the full text of Kerouac’s 1957 novel, of course. And in what the publisher Penguin is calling this “amplified edition,” you get a lot more, which begs the question: do all great works of literature really need all these extra bells and whistles?

Kerouac’s On the Road, Amplified

The text of On the Road itself contains annotations in the sidebar – links to the biographies of important characters like Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx, the fictional names assigned to fellow Beats Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. There are photos of the Beats and pages from the journals Kerouac kept while on the road. There’s an interactive map, tracing the trips taken by Dean and Sal in the novel and linking to passages. There are copies of the novel’s reviews and initial reception. There are three audio recordings of the author reading excerpts from the book. There are behind-the-scenes details about how the book was written – lore unto itself – as well as published.

But none of it really leaves me feeling like “A-ha, now I really appreciate Kerouac.”

E-Books or Enhanced Literary Apps?

All in all, the app is full of material about Kerouac and the novel and about their place in American literary history. And certainly for your $13, it’s a better deal than simply buying the Kindle version.

…The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
— Jack Kerouac

But $13 is a lot to pay for an app (and arguably in a world of $.99 self-published e-books, it’s a lot of pay for a book too). So one has to ask why: Why a Kerouac app? Why the enhanced version? Will people want it? Will people buy it?

Last week, we wrote about T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” coming to the iPad, another pricey but beautifully done literary app. In the case of Eliot’s extraordinarily challenging poem, the annotations and guides seem quite worthwhile. Readers seemed to agree, as the app quickly shot to the top of the Paid Apps in the Books category.

But On the Road, while a wonderful and important book, doesn’t really need that same sort of literary unpacking that Eliot’s poem does. Indeed, most of the annotations really just explain who the characters are and link to the app’s photo collection. There isn’t really any commentary here to help students of the work figure out what Kerouac is doing stylistically, no analysis of his cadence, and no explanation of the passages that were, when the novel was first published, deemed pornographic. And perhaps most disappointing: with the possibility to recreate the famous “scroll” – the 120 continuous feet of paper on which Kerouac typed the manuscript, the iPad app opts instead to give us pages to flip.

There is also ample opportunity here with a Kerouac app to explain On the Road as a cultural phenomenon, and for fans of the Beats, the photos of Cassady and Kerouac may be interesting. But there’s really nothing new in this version of On the Road, and so the app falls short of delivering an innovative experience – something that Kerouac (and a reader paying $13) deserves.