An unfortunate series of events: Faber’s digital edition of The 39 Steps
E-version of spy classic may send you climbing back up to print
However, the immediate engagement feels less like reading than like playing a role-playing video game. Where the original book follows a traditional chaptered layout, the e-book is structured as a series of events, and as the reader completes or “achieves” each event they are returned to the title page to move the story on. This seriously affects the pace and suspense of Buchan’s thriller. Visually, it works hard to steep us in the fictional world, but structurally it keeps denying us immersion. The mechanics of this immersion also don’t really make sense. The reader hasn’t really “achieved” anything: many of the tasks are optional – pouring a drink by following a particular sequence of swipes – and thus not really necessary to the story at all, while others – opening a door – need to happen anyway for the story to progress. Is this actually an achievement? Only in the same way that turning a page is.
Indeed, the big problem is that The 39 Steps actually remains too true to the source material to be truly interactive, and yet this can hardly be levelled as a criticism: when presenting a new version of a classic text, surely faithfulness is key. Where a role-playing video game enables you to live out and create any world you want, with each decision you make having natural consequences, in The 39 Steps your choices do not and cannot change the outcome of the story. Buchan, not the reader, is the true author of this world, so the interactive interventions are just a bit pointless.
But there are some really good elements too. The characters are presented in silhouette, for example, which encourages us to visualise our own version of them (yes, just as a traditional reading experience would), but it also adds to the noir-ish atmosphere. There is a variety of visual modes of exposition, meanwhile, which keep the form from being repetitive: voiceover; live-action dialogue; and short animated silent films bring us the characters’ backstories while again staying true to the time period.
And yet overall the general sense is that the e-book is trying a little too hard to distract us from the fact that in this instance the reading experience actually suffers. The constant swiping and tapping that is necessary to reveal piecemeal nuggets of dialogue and text is slowly exhausting, killing the suspense, while nowhere in the e-book version is the full text of Buchan’s book made available to the reader. If anything, the e-book will actually send you looking for the paperback, as it did this reader.
But surely that’s a victory for Buchan and the publishing industry, whatever way you look at.