In Nadine Gordimer advocates book over screen, the Mail & Guardian reports on a defense of the printed book against the onslaught of technology by the Nobel laureate and one of South Africa’s most distinguished literary figures. Below is my response.
I too love the form of a book, the weight and smell of it, the feeling of the paper. I would be devastated if books were to vanish, relegated to museums. But one can’t ignore the changes that are happening in the world, nor the advantages that new technology offers. Books are highly durable — read on the mountain top without fear of the battery dying — but prohibitively expensive. Without libraries, our youth can’t access books. I agree that we desperately need libraries, but must concede that we probably won’t see them built and stocked for some time (if ever).
What our youth do have, however, are cellphones. The project that I lead, called m4Lit (mobiles for literacy), takes this book-poor/cellphone-rich context of South Africa — indeed of most of Africa — as a point of departure. If cellphones are what’s in the hands of young people then that is what we have to work with. On a mobisite and on MXit, we’ve published two short stories called Kontax, written in conventional English. In 7 months we’ve had over 33,000 reads of these stories. We asked young people to leave comments on chapters — over 3,000 received so far — and have run two writing competitions (e.g. make up a character you’d like to read about in the next Kontax story) with over 4,000 entries submitted. Through their comments, some of the readers have said that they don’t like reading books but that reading on their cellphones is fun and enjoyable. A few others have indicated that reading Kontax has changed they way they think about reading, from “that is something that I don’t do” to “this is fun.”
A key feature of phones, which books don’t have, is connectivity. With chapter comments left by our readers for all to see, reading moves from a solitary exercise to a more social one. While reading a book on one’s own is a very enjoyable pastime, a more social experience has huge potential for those who need help with texts through annotations (remember how useful it was when you got your hands on a school or university textbook that a previous learner had embellished with notes). This sort of marginalia can now be useful to a much wider audience, not only to one lucky learner each year. What’s more, in a publicly visible way there can be questions and answers as one reader leaves a comment wondering what is going on in the story, and another reader comments with the answer.
True, a cellphone needs a charged battery, but today’s kids have a habit of finding power one way or another. As a device it offers a viable distribution platform for the written word, not printed on paper but displayed in pixels. I think we need to acknowledge that while the pixel isn’t as soulful as a page of paper, it is infinitely better than nothing. Publishing format aside, 33,000 kids are reading and that is a good thing.
A cellphone is a viable complement, and sometimes alternative, to a printed book. If we want our youth to read, we need both. Viva the book! Viva the cellphone!