Reading in the Mobile Era

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UNESCO World Book & Copyright Day 2014

Happy World Book and Copyright Day! It is very significant that this year UNESCO chose Port Harcourt, Nigeria, as the World Book Capital of 2014. I can’t help but think it is a direct response to the ongoing terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, whose name literally means “books are forbidden.” Their stated aim is to abolish what they call Western education and impose Islamic law on all Nigerians. They enforce that law with the most brutal methods imaginable, preferring blades to guns. They have been responsible for the murder of some ten thousand Nigerians, mostly Christians but also Muslims who actively oppose them, and have succeeded in shutting down the school system in the northeast of the country.

This Easter, Boko Haram launched their most horrific attacks yet, with a string of bombings that killed nearly 300 people and the mass abduction of over 200 girls who were sitting their final exams. The school had only two guards, who were easily dispatched by the raiders. It is in the midst of this worsening nightmare that UNESCO is celebrating the power of books to foster peaceful prosperity and coexistence. Though a good education never stopped anyone from becoming a terrorist, I believe an educated public is essential to organizing a society that is capable of repelling threats like Boko Haram.

We can help by supporting literacy organizations the operate in Africa and other regions where schools are under violent threat. If these children are brave enough to risk death or abduction in order to learn, surely we can do something to help them? This year UNESCO has partnered with Worldreader, a non-profit organization that is trying to capitalize on the popularity of mobile technology in Africa to distribute ebooks and ereaders where they are needed. In places where it is simply too dangerous to go to school this is a godsend. There are also other great organizations that distribute paper books and teacher resources in Africa; here are some of my favourites. In the battle between books and brutality, let’s make sure books win.

International Literacy Day 2013

I’m not sure whether to say “Happy International Literacy Day” because as the UNESCO infographic below says, the state of literacy in the world is quite serious. Nearly a billion people lack basic literacy skills. Can this be possible, 5,000 years after the invention of writing? You would think that such a powerful technology would be spread and sought with enthusiasm, like agriculture, the wheel, electricity and the internal combustion engine. Yet this master tool of civilization cannot be used by 12.5% of the human population (not counting children under age 15). Two thirds of these are girls and women, which is a critical problem because uneducated women tend to have larger, poorer, less educated, and less healthy families than educated women. I don’t think it is a coincidence that illiteracy is highest in the world’s conflict zones, South Asia, West Asia, and Africa. The pen is only mightier than the sword when one knows how to wield it. A literate, educated population may be the best defense against oppression, extremism, and economic exploitation, which is why literacy should be a priority for development. Give people the tools and they can take care of themselves and each other.

[Click infographic for a larger version.]

International Literacy Day 2013

The Missing Ink: Fit to Print

Edward Johnston was a remarkable man, a calligrapher and designer who thought things through from the beginning. When he was asked, in 1906, to suggest improvements to the London educational system of teaching children to write, he replied promptly that he could not approve of any of it. Like Vere Foster, he noted that ‘children were being set the hopeless task of copying with pens, on paper, letterforms made and partially evolved by gravers on copper plates’. At the same time, he was setting out in his Writing, Illuminating and Lettering what he called ‘the structural or essential forms of the three main types of letters’—square capitals, round capitals, and small letters, clearly set out as not being joined together. This sense of the single letter, formed from circle and line and nothing else, as lying at the basis of handwriting would have a dramatic effect on the discipline.

Other figures at the time were starting to suggest, heretically, that the sort of handwriting that linked every letter together was quite unnecessary. Johnston’s pupil Graily Hewitt called the insistence on a connecting stroke ‘a fetish’. By 1916, the educational establishment was starting to reconsider, and a meeting of the Child Study Society explored the possibilities of teaching print script.

The simplicity of a ‘print script’ recommended itself to beginning writers. The nineteenth century had thought in terms of ovals, curls and other natural forms—very sound philosophically, but extremely difficult for a five-year-old with limited motor skills to master. It had required long hours of drills, push-pulls and overlapping ovals before any kind of writing skill could be acquired. On the other hand, children could step readily into a world where every letter was made out of combinations of straight lines and circles, or parts of circles. (Because of this simple combination, the new print scripts were often termed ‘ball and stick’ writing.) There was no requirement to link letters together, something which every teacher knew was a great strain on the beginning writer. [90-91]

But for the most part, you can almost see, as print teaching in the early stages spreads, a joyous change of perspective, from the teacher’s convenience to the child’s advantage. From Spencer onwards, the teaching of handwriting in class was all to do with subjecting the child to the teacher’s will, and forcing him to do what must be achieved, at whatever cost. You just look at the print letters which began to circulate from the 1920s onwards, and see how attractive they are to the child, and how much easier to achieve. At this time, education began to be thought of, for the first time, from the perspective of the child, who was not necessarily merely an inconvenience to the supervising adult. Probably nowhere was this shift in perspective so clearly shown as in the move to a beginning handwriting where the letters are simple, clear, easy to make and easy to read. The fundamentalists, who believed like A.G. Grenfell that cursive should be done away with altogether, or like a Professor Shelley of the same period that ‘connecting strokes tend to make words similar, whereas to distinguish one word from another we require diverse elements’, meaning print letters, were never going to succeed in making every adult write exclusively in print throughout their life. There are adults who do go on writing in print; they always have a rather rebellious, art-school air about them. But most of us move on to the more-or-less cursive writing when we’re about seven or eight, and carry on linking most of our letters up for the rest of our lives. When we are learning our manuscript letters, we look forward, as I did, to the day when we’re allowed to do ‘joined-up writing’: it possesses a marvellous prestige for most beginning writers. Print prepares us beautifully for the task of writing in an adult way, and some people will always find it enough for their needs. But handwriting, for many of us, has an element of glamour which the lovely simplicity of the ball-and-stick kindergarten letters can’t fulfil on its own. That explains, perhaps, why as some people were moving towards a hand that could be written by pencil out of circular lines and simple verticals, others were bent on reviving a handwriting style [i.e. italic] which depended for its full effect on the use, not even of a nib, but on ‘the shaded forms of the square-cut quill.’ That’ll show the proles. [93-95]

—Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting

Lately there has been a certain amount of hand-wringing over the fact that cursive writing is being glossed over or even omitted entirely from primary education in favour of teaching computer skills. University professors are astonished to receive exam papers that look like they were written by 8-year-olds. It does seem like a shame to rob children of a skill that us older folks take for granted. Will they be able to read old Christmas cards and love letters when they go through the family archive some day? Granted, I can barely make out the writing in letters from my aunt, but at least I have a fighting chance.

However, after reading this section from The Missing Ink, I am beginning to think that cursive handwriting is not necessarily the apotheosis of human literacy. Where does this idea come from? It seems to have been a particularly English obsession. Very few languages have any kind of cursive script, and only Arabic and Sanskrit regularly join their letters together. Joined-up cursive writing is really an aberration in human history, yet thanks to the efforts of English (and later, American) promoters and self-promoters, we have all been taught that this unconventional script is the proper way to write. It seems to be more a matter of ego (and class) than a practical tool for communication.

Perhaps the children are right. Cursive English is difficult to write, difficult to read, and a confusing aberration from what we see in every book, sign, screen, and piece of paper in our environment. It doesn’t matter how neat it is, cursive writing is always less legible than printing. In fact the more regular and perfectly patterned the writing, the more difficult it is to distinguish letters, as Shelley says above. All those identical joining strokes muddy the waters and the letters start to look the same.

The one thing cursive writing has going for it is speed, or so it seems. It is generally faster to write in cursive than in print, though it may be that any time gained in the writing is subsequently lost in the reading. But I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily faster. I had a friend in college who could print beautiful, perfect letters much faster than I could scribble illegible cursive. She had been trained in traditional Vietnamese writing, so English must have been a snap in comparison. Perhaps if we were trained to print beyond the second grade we too could write a fast beautiful print script.

I’m not suggesting we all go back to “ball-and-stick” printing. I think we can do better than that. Some people (like Kitty Burns Florey) advocate a semi-joined italic hand with slanting arches that resemble the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals. It is certainly attractive but I’ve tried it and getting all those arches to lean together in unison is no less difficult than achieving a regular standard script, and it can easily degenerate into a saw-toothed line that is not very pleasant to look at.

I particularly like the “Latin minuscule” scripts descended from medieval Carolingian, through Renaissance Humanist book hand, and revived in the early 20th century by the aforementioned Edward Johnston in his Foundation hand. It is easy to write, looks lovely, and is about a legible as you can get. You can use either squarish Latin or rounded Uncial for the capitals depending on your whim. It actually resembles the print script I devised for myself during my teens (and subsequently dropped for faster cursive when I hit university). Perhaps it’s time to bring it back.

Virtual Street Library

Littleman's Virtual LIbrary

This clever poster is the brainchild of Dublin artist Littleman. The QR codes link to downloadable ebooks, and even people viewing the poster online have downloaded these classics to their phones. How brilliant is that? Imagine if libraries started putting up posters around town with QR codes for their ebooks and audiobooks? What an excellent way to reach people who normally wouldn’t set foot in a library. Well done, Littleman!

via reddit

Happy World Poetry Day 2012!

I must confess that I have never been very attracted to poetry. When I was younger I found it quite bewildering. My linear mind was tripped up by every line of creative syntax, I was too naïve to grasp the emotional content, and any biblical or literary allusions went right over my head. Now that I’m older and my brain has filled out a little I am a more curious about poetry. Today’s observance of World Poetry Day has inspired me to crack open my copy of World Poetry, which I recently picked up at a thrift store.

It occurred to me that part of my problem with poetry is that I somehow got the idea that if a poem is printed in a book, it must be good and so I should like it. After reading a few poems I noticed that I liked some right away, but many others simply did not interest me. Perhaps that’s OK. It may be that poetry is a more personal matter than prose. At any rate it is probably a good place to start, so here is one of the poems I like:

An Answer to Viceprefect Zhang

In my later years I care only for quiet;
Affairs of the world no longer concern me.
Communing with myself I find no plan –
I only know I must return to the forest.
Pine winds loosen my clothing,
The mountain moon shines on my lute.
You ask me about success and failure?
Listen! a fisherman’s song floats upstream.

—Wang Wei (699-759)

“World” Book Day

When I got up this morning I saw several tweets celebrating World Book Day. I was confused at first, since I thought World Book Day was in April, but soon I recalled that the UK and Ireland have their own “World” Book Day. I had noticed this before but never looked into it. As it turns out, today’s World Book Day is an initiative of the British publishing and bookselling industry, and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day. The way it works is that for every child under 18 you can buy a £1 token and redeem it for one of 8 specially chosen books at participating bookstores. The reason they changed the date is so as not to conflict with school or religious holidays. You would think holidays would be the perfect time to get people reading, but perhaps they are not very good shopping days. It all sounds to me like an industry promotion, rather than a celebration of literacy and literature. The event is run by a registered charity, which also makes contributions to Book Aid International, but the funding comes mainly from publishers and booksellers.

I became even more skeptical when I saw that the Wikipedia page on World Book and Copyright Day had been edited to change the date to March 1st and featured the UK World Book Day logo and not the official UN poster. So I fixed it. I will have to keep an eye on that page to see if it gets altered again. The page already goes into great detail on the UK/Ireland “World Book Day” so they hardly need more promotion for their promotion.

After all that I must confess that I failed to recognize World Book and Copyright Day last year. It’s too bad because last year’s poster is quite interesting in that it features a laptop or netbook along with books, an obvious reference to the recent proliferation of ebooks. I wonder that  they did not depict an ereader or mobile device, but it may be that in most of the world, most ebooks are read on a computer, perhaps at a library or school. In any case, it is a recognition that ebooks are a now significant element of global literary culture.

UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day 2011

So mark April 23 on your calendars as the real World Book Day, and don’t forget World Poetry Day on March 21!

Happy International Literacy Day!

UNESCO International Literacy Day 2011

It is sad to contemplate that nearly 800 million adults in the world cannot read or write. That means one in six adults on the planet is deprived of their right to an education and to all the benefits that entails. One of those benefits is peace, because people who have employment opportunities and who can participate in the political process do not have to pick up a gun to get what they want.

Significant progress has already been made. Overall, literacy is up 8% over the past 20 years, and youth literacy is higher than adult literacy, so the future looks even better. But there is still much work to do, which is why I support literacy organizations (see my blog’s footer). It is a wonderful thing that no matter where you live, literacy and education improve people’s lives, so help where you can!