Sunday, January 18, 2015

Should the Underground Offer Commuters an eBook Library?

Imagine getting free access to an electronic library when travelling on the tube. Well that is what travelers can now enjoy on Line 4 of the Beijing metro.
The metro lines carriages feature barcodes which people can scan with their tablets or smartphones and this then enables them to select from a selection of books.
Howeve,r there are some obvious challenges today. Firstly there is only a choice of ten books and these historical Chinese texts. This may be a novelty today and prove too restrictive for many tomorrow. Next, the books are planned to change every couple of months, which obviously gives anyone who starts close to the end of the cycle a reading challenge. Finally, the length of the texts is not clear, but if they were say the length of UK and US titles, it may prove uninviting to those who don’t commute every day, or whose journey is relatively short. Again it is unclear whether the books are downloaded or read online, so the question of offline, or off rail, reading is also unclear.
However, if we ignore the questions raised and focus on the opportunity we can see the potential for others to adapt the proposition for other commuter communities in other cities.
Imagine the highly successful London underground poems all being available to introduce many to poetry and give that daily food for thought. Imagine sample chapters being promoted by publishers to stimulate interest in their latest titles and not just the bestsellers. Imagine a new novel being introduced Dickens style by serialisation. Imagine a library linked to the city's public library, or the national library and allowing lending on the move to those that are entitled to the service.
The question of whether it is a public or private or joint service is an intresting one but should not be a barrier to encouraging reading.
The opportunities are not restricted by technology, as it exists today, but are only restricted by the vision and commitment to enabling travelers to enjoy reading.

1 comment:

Inkling said...

To state the obvious, with this scheme the Chinese government will have ultimate control over which books are promoted this way and which aren't.

I find that quite disturbing. There are two forms of censorship, both of which existed in 1930s Europe. Both of which are used today, although the latter is much more common.

1. Stalinist. Borders are tightly controlled and the state exists absolute control over what books are published. Entire regions of the country have no access to the outside. It is virtually impossible for most people to get access to banned books.

2. Hitlerian. The nation's borders are less tightly controlled and restrictions focus on banning what is published inside the country rather preventing books from coming in from outside. In major cities, newspapers from other countries are available. Tourists can still bring those books into the country. Radio broadcasts from outside are not jammed, although the government may sell radios to weak to pick up many outside broadcasts.

In the second case, the government depends on dominating rather than completely controlling the flow of ideas. As long as most people are reading what it wants them to read, it worries little about the rest. They'd find those banned books anyway. What matters is that the latter group is kept too weak to act.

The Hitlerian scheme also stresses the flip side of censorship, which is indoctrination. That's particularly true of schools and what is required to be read there.

Those like the American Library Association who loudly claim to be against "banned books" when the so-called 'censors' are children's parents are themselves advocating a milder form of the Hitlerian scheme. Nazism repeated clashed with German parents over Nazi propaganda linked to pornography (Der Strummer). That same clash happens regularly in today's U.S.

The ALA scheme works like this. The state, which controls public schools and libraries, dictates which books are available or required reading for children. Parents have no say and are regarded as censors.

Books that differ from those the state and its bureaucracies choose are not banned, they're simply shoved out of the way by books that the state, through that complaint bureaucracy.

Rather than read a classic that builds character, like Pilgrim's Progress, middle school children are forced to read unhealthy trash like The Catcher in the Rye. And yes, the latter is propaganda for a certain sort of life.

That's how schools in Hitler's Germany functioned and that's the ALA's vision of America how school kids in America are to be indoctrinated. The distinctions are in degree rather than kind.

Promotion of some books (and thus not of others) would work much the same where public transit is the promotional means rather than public schools. I can see a repressive Chinese government going for this in a big way, but I can little to like about it.

--Michael W. Perry