Saturday, March 29, 2008

Two high-minded novels and a question....

This was a bad reading week... I did not enjoy at all two high-minded novels- Ben Okri's In Arcadia and J.M. Coetzee's Foe. Foe is apparently taught in a number of high-minded literary theory courses. I'm not averse in principle to hard to read novels that are making a point about me as a reader and the author as a writer and all of us using langugae and so on. It's just that I wonder while I am reading these two particular books why exactly is it that I find them hard to read, and the only conclusion I can draw is that they're boring. I'm reading with a feeling of tedium, turning page after page and not really caring much what the characters are doing (perhaps because they aren't doing much). And I don't find myself puzzled and interested in my reactions to the text (I'm bored). So, not every book from Africa is a gem, some are just bad. These are two I don't recommend, and they are from excellent authors, at that!

The question... I was giving a presentation about FAVL to a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers, and towards the end the question was raised whether this whole endeavour, with its focus on the technology of books, wasn't simply missing the point, the point being that electronic reading material was rapidly eclipsing books. FAVL may as well be setting up darkrooms and teaching people how to develop negatives using chemical photoprocessing techniques. What do I have to say about that? It is a good question. People are indeed writing and reading text messages on their cell phones, even in remote villages in Burkina Faso. And undoubtedly someday people will be reading Ben Okri on their cell phone, the way people read novels on cell phones in Japan. But my son, who is 9, and an avid reader, and who lives in Silicon Valley, has yet to read anything on any electronic medium. And most likely he'll never read fiction in an electronic medium, unless the technology improves really really fast. So kids in African villages are unlikely to lose much from the investments FAVL donors make in community libraries. Besides, I believe the most important investment we are making is in the institution of the community library, rather than the books per se. This is the mission that drives FAVL every day, and makes FAVL so different from the book-oriented NGO.... our focus is on building the community library as a long-lasting community institution. So we are technology neutral. Not Luddites, and not bookworms. FAVL doesn't exist to give people warm and fuzzy feelings of reading printed letters on pages bound into books (covered in calfskin?). FAVL exists to help people read.

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