Frankenstein app includes original handwritten manuscript, plus 1,300 other things

The New York Public Library just released Frankenstein, its second free Biblion installment, and like last year’s World Fair app this one comes loaded with enough primary source material and new content to keep you occupied for a month.

Mary Wallstonecraft Shelley’s original handwritten manuscript is just one of its primary source treasures. You’ll also find scans from a scrapbook started in 1795, a journal of early poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela’s first official African National Congress statement, and various 19th century engravings. Oh, and the 1831 edition of Frankenstein in case you’d like to just read it (you fetishist).

There’s so much Frankenstein-related content — about 50 articles, interviews, comics and slideshows, plus a couple dozen polls and discussion forums — that it’s hard to describe the app without resorting to a features list, which I sort of just did. In that sense it certainly feels like the kind of app a library would produce, because it offers a little something for everyone, and the longer you poke around the more interesting things you find.

For example, I didn’t know that the cult of celebrity around this group was so intense that a man actually tried to steal Shelley’s heart while he was being cremated. Thanks to this app, now I do.

Sure, it’s not perfect. All that content adds up, and like many enhanced ebook apps this one crosses the 1 GB threshhold, which just highlights how quickly the smaller-capacity iPad models are becoming obsolete when it comes to the latest apps.

The dual-mode navigation concept is also more complicated than it should be, and unfortunately the intro makes matters worse by advising you to rotate the iPad back and forth to jump between new articles and source material. But that way lies madness. It’s better to just approach it as two separate apps stitched together, like, oh I don’t know, an iOS abomination that will forever haunt its master. (I’m hilarious.)

Stranger still is the underbaked ebook functionality, considering the app’s focus. You can mark favorite articles, but if you want to bookmark or highlight the actual book, you’re better off grabbing it from Project Gutenberg or another free source and then reading it in a more suitable app like Readmill.

And finally, I know it’s not really “free” if you first have to pay Apple $400 or more for an iPad. For those of us without iPads, the content is also available online in a more trditional website format, although I had a lot of trouble finding all the primary source content even after poking around the site for half an hour.

The two navigational structures of the app.

Despite these complaints, if you own an iPad you should check it out. I think it’s a great early experiment at how to bundle a lot of disparate content around a central theme and present it in ebook format. I’m still amazed that as of last week, I can now sit on my couch and browse through Mary Wallstonecraft Shelley’s original handwritten manuscript, then cross-reference it with an early print edition, then flip over to a transcript of a discussion about the book by a prison reading group, then look at engravings of automata. I didn’t know I wanted to do any of that, but that’s the magic of the library I guess.

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