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‘Dubliners’ Comes to Life in Boston College’s Annotated E-Book

Sara Doyle, a rising senior at Boston College, first read Dubliners in high school—most of it, at least. Her teacher told her to skip “After the Race,” one of 15 short stories in James Joyce’s portrait of early-20th-century Dublin. When Ms. Doyle finally tackled the tale during her sophomore year at Boston College, she understood why. “It’s very transparent,” Ms. Doyle says. “It lacks something the other stories have. The other stories are complex, and this one is not.”

This image serves as the cover for "After the Race" in the Boston College students' e-book.

This image serves as the cover for “After the Race” in the Boston College students’ e-book.

Then Ms. Doyle began digging. She’d been asked to annotate and analyze “After the Race” for use in a student-designed e-book called Digital Dubliners. Ms. Doyle found audio for the music Joyce mentioned in the story, and even unearthed video footage of the 1903 car race on which “After the Race” is based. And with context, she began to discover the hidden wonder in Joyce’s “forgotten chapter.”

“Today a car race isn’t a big deal,” Ms. Doyle says. “But in 1903 it was huge. A lot of the story is about being swept away by glamorous, new, modern things.”

That same sentiment could apply to Digital Dubliners, which will be launched on June 11, almost 100 years to the day after Joyce published the original text. The e-book’s creators, a class of 15 Boston College students, say it will change how teachers teach—and students understand—Joyce’s work. Using Apple’s iBooks Author software, they infused the text with critical analysis, multimedia annotations, and video commentary from Joyce scholars. The result now lives on iTunes, where anyone, anywhere, can use it free.

Joseph Nugent, an associate professor of the practice of English at the college, spearheaded the project. He says the e-book will immerse readers in the sights, sounds, and smells of Joyce’s Dublin like never before. He hopes it will also demystify an author many approach warily.

“We wanted nothing more than to create the available universe of knowledge at that time,” Mr. Nugent says. “Everything was designed to make people search further.”

Meeting that goal took a good deal of conscious winnowing. Digital Dubliners attempts to flesh out the historical context without overexplaining the text or intruding on the reader’s process of discovery. “Our goal isn’t to read the book for you,” Ms. Doyle says. “It’s to help you understand it.”

Matthew Mazzari, a classmate, agrees. “We didn’t want to spoil that sense of getting lost in the language by turning Joyce into a textbook,” he says.

Before Digital Dubliners, Mr. Nugent developed a similar project around the Joyce novel Ulysses, resulting in an app that allowed readers to map the physical movements of the story’s main characters. The latest effort, however, dives deeper into the substance of Joyce’s work. The e-book, according to its creators, contains about 300 images, more than 700 notes and explanations, and two dozen videos.

As improved technology makes it possible to offer more and more such digital enhancements, the challenge for e-book authors hinges less on what to add and more on what to leave out. That challenge is particularly acute when it comes to reimagining classic texts. Some fear an overindulgence in digital annotation might transform the mystery of reading great prose into a rote exercise.

“What you’re talking about is the danger of turning literature into something like a crossword puzzle,” says Joseph Valente, a Joyce scholar who is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo, a State University of New York campus, and who contributed video commentary to Digital Dubliners. When you work on a crossword puzzle, he says, the goal is to fill in the blanks in order to complete it, not to attain any deeper understanding of the material.

Mr. Valente says Digital Dubliners avoids such excess by strategically making historical context a priority over interpretation. The e-book also helps link today’s plugged-in learners, he says, with a younger, more accessible version of Joyce—the same college-age kid who once marveled at a turn-of-the-century automobile race.

“He was interested in what was new,” Mr. Valente says of Joyce. “He was interested in tech developments. He was in many ways someone you could identify with.”

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