E-readers the answer to textbooks

I should start by saying that I own many books and I love reading with a Jesuitical passion. My daughter was one of four children from Manor Gardens Primary School in Durban who dominated the International Kids Lit Quiz in New Zealand last year. I do not think that there is anything as liberating or as beautiful as a child reading a book.  

I am a historian and I know that books have been amazingly powerful agents of world history over the past 500 years: the vernacular Bible, Hobbes's Leviathan, The Communist Manifesto, Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, Fanon's Wretched of the Earth.

It is a cliché. The world we now live in is the product of the 16th-century printing press and the objects it has produced. Yet it is also obvious that the book has become an anachronism, an obstacle to the development and distribution of knowledge. Nowhere is this seemingly more true than in South Africa.

It is time that we acknowledge the fact and start trying to do something about it.

It is an almost open secret that all the books you might ever want to read or study are available for free on the internet. Some of these repositories, such as libgen.org, are illegal: they are hosted in countries that are difficult to police by clever and resourceful students who understand that a digital book (and the databases needed to host and find them) can be reproduced and distributed instantly without meaningful costs and the enormous use value of instant access will trump the threats of copyright fines. Hundreds of thousands of commercially published e-books are also being shared by the torrent sites.

The legal route
But there are also millions of books available entirely legally on the web. The best single repository is Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive, which hosts scanned copies of the out-of-copyright works of dozens of the largest libraries in the world. These books, most of which were written in the English language before 1930, are freely available in large pdf formats you can read on your computer or iPad and tiny e-pub files suitable for a reader like the Kindle. The same is true of the Google Books project and even Amazon distributes hundreds of thousands of books for free.

In South Africa, meanwhile, the book has become an object of conspicuous consumption, so expensive and difficult to access that only the very richest South Africans can get their hands on them. Recently I was looking for an essay in a book published in South Africa last year. My local, very good library did not have a copy and neither did the nearest bookshop. So I contacted the publisher directly and then visited its offices in person.

It had to search for the book for 20 minutes and it required another 20 minutes to charge my credit card. The whole exercise took me two hours of determined searching and cost me R200. By contrast, if the book had been available as an Amazon Kindle book I would have downloaded it in five minutes at a fraction of that cost.

The recent textbook debacle in Limpopo should alert us to the fact that book publishing and purchasing, especially for the national school curriculum, has for a long time been much more about profit and capital accumulation than it has been about learning.

Added to the frantic scramble for the state-funded textbook trough is the simple fact that we have no reliable administrative or infrastructural tools to ensure that pupils actually get their books. Books as they are currently produced, distributed and sold are actually obstacles to the expansion of learning.

Yet an obvious and entirely practical alternative is staring us in the face. Consider the Kindle. Amazon  sells a Kindle with permanent, free 3G connectivity for about R1 100. That is the total, ongoing cost for access to millions of the finest books ever published.

Considering the constraints
Kindles also have some technological features that match them particularly well to the constraints of our schools. The most important of these is that they require charging only about once a month. When they do, they use the same mini-USB charger that is ubiquitously available for BlackBerries.

Even the cheapest Kindle, which has only wi-fi networking and is priced online at less than R500, can store 2 000 books. And, perhaps most importantly, each Kindle comes with its own email address, which would mean that teachers, schools and the basic education department could distribute content directly to the pupils.

Issuing every high-school child with a Kindle would provide a silver-bullet remedy to many of the most pressing problems of our education system. If, as the government and most experts insist it must, the department finally gets around to developing the kinds of textbooks that can compensate for the appalling teaching that is common in poor schools, a universally distributed Kindle would give every child in the country equal access, for the first time, to the resources they actually need to learn. The same can be said of African-language writing, which is even more difficult to find than conventional books.   

I am not sure how Amazon would react to the idea that every schoolchild in South Africa should be equipped with a state-funded Kindle. I suspect it would be delighted. But if not, there are many other similar e-readers that can do that job. And the state, or the Competition Commission, would need to insist (and regulate) that the Kindle platform should be properly available to South African publishers.

Bookshops are wonderful, but they are expensive and inaccessible mechanisms for distributing knowledge. And people who read on a Kindle are likely only to expand the tiny market for real books.

It is time to abandon the lament of the death of the book and move to the instrument that can actually save us money, solve our perplexing ­distribution problems and deliver the finest works of our civilisation. It is time to nationalise the Kindle.

Keith Breckenridge is a researcher and associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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