Nadine Gordimer advocates book over screen

Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, one of South Africa’s most distinguished literary figures and a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, has mounted a passionate defence of the printed book against the onslaught of technology.

In the week that the iPad was launched in the UK, Gordimer said: “There is no substitute for the book, and it would be a great deprivation and danger if the book should disappear and be replaced by something with a battery.”

She said of cellphone and computer technology: “I am not talking in a fuddy-duddy way about this. These things are wonderful for disseminating information.

“But for poetry, for novels, stories — those things that have the imagination at their heart — there is no substitute for the book.”

Gordimer was delivering the Hamelin lecture at the Guardian Hay festival.

In a wide-ranging prospectus for the future of literary culture in the 21st century, she addressed the problem of how literature might be distributed to a remote and rural population in Africa and elsewhere.

Rather than harnessing the power of cellphone technology, she believes the answer lies in books — and in public libraries and provision of texts in schools. “We need libraries in rural communities and shanty towns,” she said.

“This is a very big question: whether technology will outstrip the printed word. But with a gadget you are always dependent on a battery and on power of some sort. A book won’t fall apart; you can read it as easily on a mountaintop as in a bus queue. The printed word is irreplaceable, and much threatened.”

On an electronic screen, she said, “the words pass as an image before you. If you want to turn back, it is something you have to manage. With a book, you are flipping back and your eye may be caught indeed by other passages.

“Reading the image is different from reading the text in a book.”

She said that in Africa there are “thousands who don’t have access to the online world. And there are virtually no bookstores in the vast areas where the blacks used to be confined under apartheid.”

Gordimer, who is 86, also recounted at the weekend her early adventures in poetry. Aged nine, she had written a verse in praise of Boer hero Paul Kruger that began: “Noble in heart, noble in mind/ Never deceitful, never unkind.” Despite the precision of language in her novels (notable among which is The Conservationist, which won the Booker prize in 1974), she said: “I wasn’t up to poetry.”

Asked to name her most significant authors, she emphasised Proust, whom she had read in English as a girl, later in French, and recently for a third time. “I realised in anguish there were some books I’d better reread before I die, so I decided to read it again in French,” she said.

When she was a girl, she said, “it showed me what a complex human thing was love; how it is a basic human relation that has nothing to do with the fact that one had to get married and have children. It also gave me an idea of freedom, and the trouble one might get into because of it.” –

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