Digital Scrapbook Collects Rock-Star Authors' Memories

Jun 17, 2013

Part of an occasional series of e-book reviews, co-produced by NPR Books and All Tech Considered, focusing on creative combinations of technology and literature.

If there was ever a story that screamed out for a multimedia e-book treatment, it's the tale of The Rock Bottom Remainders. For readers not up on literary trivia, the Remainders were a bookish band, a small army of best-selling authors — including Amy Tan, Dave Barry and Stephen King — who yowled out rock standards. No single-platform treatment of this fundraising sensation could suffice. They're writers; a book is only logical. They wore ludicrous costumes; pictures are essential. And, since the principal question about the Remainders is Are they any good?, there absolutely must be audio.

That call has been answered. This week sees the release of Hard Listening for tablets and e-readers: an assemblage of photos, videos, essays, emails, faxes, quizzes and tidbits of advice culled from two decades of enthusiastic, semi-talented music-making.

When the last book about the Remainders was published, in 1995, you couldn't even run to YouTube to hear this improbable team of musicians. Now, of course, curiosity is instantly sated. Hard Listening embeds video frequently; Stephen King brings up his fondness for "Susie Q," and with a tap, you're listening to the song. These multimedia elements aren't extras — they're crucial to the book (which, if anything, could have used even more audio).

The e-book also builds in some fun inessentials, like a series of pop quizzes about members of the band. After you answer, you can see how you compare to other readers — and to the Remainders themselves. Another inspired addition: a game of "guess the real Stephen King." King's writing style is so distinctive that he once had a pseudonym blown wide open by a bookstore clerk recognizing his writing. Given a handful of King-esque stories, could you do the same? (I couldn't!) And since band members lived all over the country, gigs and tours were arranged via emails and faxes, a handful of which are also included in the e-book — yes, faxes, reproduced on an iPad. The wonders of technological advancement!

These many kinds of content are integrated in an attractive, easy-to-navigate design, but the section headers can't conceal what I hesitate to call a flaw — more of a fact. Hard Listening is less e-book than e-scrapbook, a curated collection of artifacts from a group of friends.

Thriller author Greg Iles notes, in his portion of the book: "I consider writing this 'essay' akin to signing my band mates' yearbooks (and selfishly taking up a couple of pages)." It's an apt comparison. No matter how well-composed the essays are, there's no escaping that each author remembers only the good times, cracking fond jokes instead of crafting narratives or exploring any interesting tensions. And while the tone is mostly consistent, the essays, email exchanges, quizzes and pieces of advice never quite form a cohesive whole; they feel discrete, like cheerful gel pen signatures that just happen to share a page.

And like a yearbook, this e-book becomes increasingly interesting the more people you know in it. Dave Barry and Stephen King playing guitar together? Amy Tan in a dominatrix act? Mitch Albom dressed up as Elvis? Roy Blount Jr. getting women's underwear thrown at his head? Scott Turow in an exceedingly undignified wig? If you're laughing with recognition and slight disbelief, this is the book for you. But if most of those names are meaningless, you might want to give this well-made little e-book a pass.

Above all, Hard Listening makes it clear that the members of the Remainders had an absolute blast as a band. They're occasionally crass, often intoxicated, rarely in key and always delighted at the very idea that they're on a stage. It's downright inspiring; even if most of us will never sell a million books, we can probably learn at least two guitar chords. If we have half as much fun as the Remainders, it'll be a victory.

Camila Domonoske is an editorial assistant at NPR Books.

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