It’s about reading, not paper vs pixels

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.

Nadine Gordimer (Image: United Nations Photo. License: CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Dear Nadine,

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!


2 Responses to “It’s about reading, not paper vs pixels”

  1. 1 Sam Fleming June 4, 2010 at 6:10 am

    Great response Steve. I’ve written an opinion on the original M&G site and on my blog

    I love books. I always have at least 3 books waiting next to my bed (alongside the one or two I am already reading). And bookclub is one of my favourite monthly outings – because I’m dying to see what new books have been purchased. So I read with interest the recent exchange between Nadine Gordimer and Steve Vosloo.

    I am one of the 1% of people in South Africa who visits bookshops – one of the lucky 49% in South Africa who actually has a book in my house– and one of the even luckier 7% who owns more than 40 books. But then I grew up with parents who loved reading themselves. The rule was – doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you keep reading.

    So I was surrounded by the love of reading – and I embraced it myself.

    In South Africa today, too many children just don’t read. They don’t have books in their homes; not enough in their schools; and the culture of reading is one that seems to belong to the older generation. Or does it?

    Steve Vosloo’s work at the Shuttleworth Foundation shows that teenagers ARE reading. Just not the way we are expecting. They are reading – and writing – using their cellphones.

    When I first heard about the phenomenon, I was a little skeptical. I mean aren’t we complicating the illiteracy debate by adding another medium? And what about the language used on this medium – so many people use shortened words – called texting (or txting). Doesn’t this confuse young minds who can’t distinguish between “real English” and “text English”.

    At a recent seminar where Steve Vosloo presented on “Is the cellphone the Kindle of Africa?”, a group of teachers in the room were astonished at the rate of reading and writing that has followed the publication of the mobile novel called Kontax. Most people in the room nodded vociferously when one of the participants said “it doesn’t matter what they read – just as long as they are reading”. There was also some great discussion in the room about how much intuitive thinking it takes (and base knowledge of spelling) to actually write in “text English”, so perhaps we are not throwing the English language down the toilet after all.

    The mobile novel Kontax has had 33,000 readers in just 6 months. These people went back every day for 21 days, to download 400 word chapters and read the next part of the story. The cost of downloads is between 5 and 9 cents per chapter, which makes the entire novel just over R2. Contrast this with a novel in a bookshop which, if you’re lucky, starts at R110. (As an aside, a colleague recently returned from Brazil, where you can buy classic titles from a vending machine on the train station – for less than the price of a train ticket!).

    The cellphone is definitely the kindle of Africa. And most young readers either have their own cellphone, or access to one. Until South Africa brings down the price of books, the mobile novel holds the promise of a future of reading – and a reading culture – in this country.

  2. 2 Steve Vosloo June 4, 2010 at 6:43 am

    Thanks Sam! Well said.

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