Alexa arrived at our house last December accompanied by glowing references regarding her musical abilities and her speaking skills. Within an hour or so she had found a spot in our kitchen-diner and had settled in.
Alexa is, of course, Amazon’s Echo product whose main feature is that you use it by talking to it – no screens, no keyboards, just the word ‘Alexa’ and then whatever you want to request. For example, ‘Alexa, play BBC Radio 2’, or ‘Alexa, play the album 25 by Adele’.
Su had seen an advert and I had looked up some reviews on the net which were pretty complimentary. We realised that, as well as enabling us to play our digitised music, Alexa would give us access to radio stations. The sound quality was reported to be very good, and the device itself was a relatively small cylinder which would take up very little space. We found a good deal from John Lewis (reduced from 149.99 to £119.99) and duly placed our order.
At first, we just relished the ability to call up UK radio stations (and I even managed a station from as far afield as Singapore); and then I figured out how to get Alexa to play the music on my iPhone using a Bluetooth connection. Following some suggestions in the weekly ‘What’s new with Alexa’ email, I tried Alexa’s multiple choice adventure game, asked her to tell me a joke, and set up the Jamie Oliver add-on (or ‘skill’ as add-ons are known in this Amazon world) to get some advice on recipes. Finally, when we realised that Alexa could play just about any song or album, we took advantage of Amazon’s offer of a free month using Amazon Music – and then just rolled over and took out the £3.99 a month subscription.
It was a significant moment. In the space of about 6 weeks we had overcome two of our longstanding problems – a) not having a decent sound system with our record collection sitting next to it, and b) not being able to get good quality radio reception. However, there was still one facet of this arrangement which falls short – it’s not possible to glance across a shelf of CDs to look for inspiration about what to play.
It was a completely fortuitous coincidence that around this time I had enrolled on one of the very few Bookbinding courses in the UK at the Bedford Arts and Craft Centre some 20 minutes away from where I live. As I started creating my first book – a 160 page A5 notebook with blank pages – I started to realise how that final shortcoming of our Alexa setup could be resolved: I could create the ‘bookshelf’ of all our LPs, tapes and CDs in a book which we could keep next to Alexa. The book would include the album covers so you could flick through and let your eyes be caught by familiar images; and it would specify whether each album could be played by Alexa or would have to be played on the iPhone through Alexa. Having recently completed the digitisation of all of our albums, I knew that I had all the information and album art in my laptop; and with my rudimentary knowledge of book binding, I was pretty sure I could assemble the material in a Word document that could be printed out in the form required to create a book. With a growing sense of doing something rather interesting, I embarked on structuring the book and setting it up in Word.