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Overland extract: Margaret Simons on text in the electronic world

In Overland 198, Margaret Simons looks at the possibilities for text and reading in the digital age, and reminds us that reading does not begin and end with the novel:

Like most seasons, this summer has been a time of books in my household, a place that, for the holiday period, has spanned the generations. Knowing I was going to write this piece, I have been watching the members of my extended family read.

My grandson turned two last week. Books aimed at his age group are full of things to touch and things to do: glitter, fur and holes, caterpillars that eat and penguins to be counted. ‘Reading’, if that is what he is doing, is an activity he shares. A few months ago, he was not sufficiently adept to turn a page by himself. Now he is discovering the rewards of doing so, since each new page has a picture of a duck, a car or a baby and he gets a thrill from saying the correct word or having me say it for him.

Then there are my own children – a son aged twelve and a daughter of thirteen. They like books, too. They take on extra chores to earn the pocket money to purchase a new Alex Rider novel – and for twenty-four hours thereafter, it is impossible to get them to do anything because they are reading, which, as they are apt to remind me, is a good thing and should be encouraged. Even Mark Latham said you should read to kids, my daughter points out.

Yet novels are only part of how they read. Once upon a time teenagers dominated the household telephone talking with their friends. Now the phone is silent and Facebook is their constant companion. My children are both reading and writing – and even participating in the invention of a new language, as they lol and soz and rofl away. They write their own narratives, with no time or distance between author and audience. And, for better or worse, their words live on, a permanent record of who they were and what they said during the long, hot summer of 2009.

Late last year, at the Media140 conference in Sydney, blogger Laurel Papworth addressed an audience of journalists on the question, ‘Do journalists do it better?’ As a backdrop, she displayed a running tally of new blog posts and entries on social media sites worldwide. The numbers moved faster than anyone could follow, mounting into the tens and hundreds of thousands during the five minutes of the talk. So much for the claim that the internet is destroying reading!

Papworth said:

Stop for a moment and think about your great-great-great-great-grandmother. Who was she? Do you have videos or even photos of her? Do you know what she did when she was seventeen and a half? Where she went on holiday at thirty-three years of age? What she wrote about at sixty-four? Now move forward in time and consider what the next generation and the next generation and the one after will know about their great-great-great-grandparents. For the first time in human evolution we are co-creating the Human Narrative. Never again will our histories be held hostage to the victors, our stories forgotten, unwritten, unscribed. It’s not your content. It’s our content. Our stories. We didn’t give you the Human Story: we loaned it to you, and now we’re taking it back.

Read the rest of the essay.

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