If Monks Had Macs

If Monks Had Macs is difficult to pin down. Part-book, part-game, it styles itself as a virtual monastery of ideas and comes complete with a selection of eBooks including works by GK Chesterton, Robert Louis Stephenson, Oscar Wilde and the Warren Commission witness testimony to the JFK assassination.

It first debuted as a HyperCard stack and has now been updated to run on modern Macs. Without this oddball product displaying the power and potential of hypermedia, applications such as the groundbreaking 1990s game Myst would likely never have appeared.

But what is it? Art? A library? A curiosity? All of those things, but mainly it’s a futuristic artefact from a future that never arrived. Rooted in the pre-Internet era of multimedia, it brings to mind the best industrial design of the 1920s and 1930s when everything was taking on a futuristic chrome look in preparation for the glorious decades everyone felt were sure to come. The Internet is with us now and is infinitely better than CD-ROM multimedia resources in scope, but few Web sites – if any – can match the quality of this.

If Monks Had Macs stands out particularly as an educational resource, actually managing to perform the dreaded “making learning fun”. Anyone interested in the background of resistance to the Nazis will find it particularly worthwhile as the author, Brian Thomas, has compiled a mass of information on Sophie Scholl, whose work inspired the White Rose group that published and distributed anti-Nazi tracts within Germany. The JFK resource is also superb, although the JFK Extra section does betray the application’s HyperCard roots – some users may find this section’s monochrome graphics archaic, but they do demonstrate some of the aesthetic wonderment that was the early Macintosh.

Thomas’ interests are varied and If Monks Had Macs has no central theme to speak of, using it is akin to taking a pleasant intellectual stroll. Unlike more mainstream encyclopaedia-type efforts, it’s clearly a labour of love following its author’s obsessions in great detail, rather than surface-skimming mines of information. The inclusion of the eBooks is a genius idea as it extends the life of the application significantly. In the way of bonus material, it comes bundled with a Project Gutenberg-compatible eBook reader and a journal writing application.


If Monks Had Macs is a peculiar product. I’d have given it five stars, but it’s clearly a niche product. You’ll either love it, or be bored and confused by it. Curious and eclectic, this application, though modern in look-&-feel, remains an artefact of a future that never came – the electronic book. Replaced by the Internet, there are few hypertext productions these days, so it may be worth checking out for curiosity value alone.

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