When you’re thinking of an old book to replay and remix into a digital form, ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers is, perhaps, not the most obvious choice.
Published in 1903, it’s a classic ‘ripping yarn’ about two men – Carruthers & Davies – uncovering a dastardly German plot whilst sailing around the Baltic and the Frisian Islands. It’s not exactly an easy read, with quite a lot of archaic language and long sentences, and there’s also a certain amount of casual sexism and racism. It’s a story about a world of Edwardian gentlemanly pursuits and crumbling European empires that pretty much got washed away by the Great War.
It is, though, a book that has never been out of print, is much loved by small boat sailors everywhere and contains breathtakingly great descriptions of real-life sailing. The voyage of the “ugly little 5-tonner” Dulcibella described here isn’t a romantic misty-eyed view of yachting. This is sea-spray in the face, cramped quarters, basic grub and oilskins.
Most important of all, this is a book that feels very real, and like all the best adventure books, makes you want to get out there yourself to experience the landscape, the weather and the journey. It’s not so much a novel as a manual for action.
Written in part like a log-book or diary, in an attempt to pass itself as a record of fact, ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ is also curiously date- and location-specific, starting in Flensburg, Germany, on September 26th and ending in Ostmahorn, Holland, on October 26th.
It’s this aspect of the book that first drew us to it as something we could play with digitally. Might it be possible to geotag this book; to pin all its elements onto a digital map and allow people to access an old out-of-copyright text in a different way via an online/mobile interface?
When we started to think like this, it quickly became obvious, too, that we should really use the book as an excuse to get out there ourselves.
A DIGITAL ADVENTURE CLUB
Instead of cutting up the text and replaying, or remixing the book from the security of our work desks, we should really walk it like Carruthers & Davies talk it – capturing the experience of the book by taking it out into the wild, using it as our sole guide day by day, and employing mobile phones, cams, streaming services and social media to capture everything we do as we follow the route from Flensburg to Ostmahorn.
If you go to http//riddleofthesands.net, you’ll see that we’re well on the way to planning this digital adventure. Week by week we’re going through the book; plotting out all the references to people, places and things, releasing a regular podcast about our findings and reaching out to Riddle fans on the web to tell us what they know – about the landscape, about sailing, about spying, about Edwardian Europe, about the author Childers and more.
By September 26th 2015 we aim to be fully armed with enough information and contacts to take on the adventure for real – meeting local people, capturing the atmosphere of each place we visit, re-enacting key journeys and scenes, and generally having our own adventure that can be mapped against the original text.
So far, so good. To many this sounds like a good excuse for a long walking/cycling holiday and not the basis for a new digital publishing format. We do, though, have firm plans to produce both a digital experience out of what we’re doing – and a more traditional book.
WORKING WITH UNBOUND
The book will be a combination of the original novel, a record of our own re-enactment and a practical guide for people who’d like to try out their own Riddle of the Sands adventure.
More significantly, during the month-long trip we’re going to offer subscribers the opportunity to travel along with us virtually and vicariously via the website. Every day we’ll live stream a report of what we’re up to and we’ll offer ‘field’ recordings of us reading from the original text in the places mentioned in the book. We’ll also post interviews and encounters with local people of interest – local historians, working sailors, regional chefs, fellow travellers and so on.
In short, we’re offering people the chance to join what we’re calling an Adventure Club. This will give them access to a month-long online adventure – something akin to a daily digital travel documentary with social elements – and will ultimately result in the production of a new co-authored, richly annotated ‘Handbook’ edition of The Riddle of the Sands, plus an accompanying field audiobook.
When described like this, it becomes obvious that there are costs associated with delivering such an operation. That is why we’ve teamed up with crowd funding specialists Unbound, offering people the chance to pledge support for the Adventure Club. Just £25 gets you access to the online adventure plus the audiobook and both the ebook and hardback editions of the Handbook.
It’s not an easy sell when so much web content is available to people for nothing these days, and the basic text of The Riddle of the Sands is available for free on http://www.gutenberg.org/. So far we’ve secured about 15% of the funds we need to break even on this project.
But we think this unique combination of a streamed web show, geo-tagged media and maps for planning your own trips, plus the production of an attractive physical artifact (a book!) could be an effective package. And we think the ‘Adventure Club’ model could be applied to a whole range of classic adventure novels – Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’, Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped, Ambler’s ‘Mask of Dimitrios…
Should this first prototype manage to wash its face, we see a great future for this kind of subscription model for producing a whole series of hybridised books and ‘adventures’ in both digital and print form.
It’s a way for non-digital readers to enter the world of blogs, podcasting, periscoping and hangouts without getting too freaked out. And it’s a chance to reintroduce some great stories to a new generation of digital natives who might otherwise leave these old classics to gather dust on their grandparents’ shelves forever.
The Adventure Club could be for both the old and the young, perhaps with everyone going on an adventure in reading together.
You can pledge your support for Lloyd Shepherd & Tim Wright’s digital replay & remix of a classic novel visit The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club at http://unbound.co.uk/books/riddle-of-the-sands