Thursday 19 November 2009

National Reading Summit Report

On Friday I had the honour of speaking at the TD National Reading Summit, a conference organized by the Reading Coalition, designed to initiate the development of a national reading policy. It was an amazing event, humbling in so many ways. For one, it was fantastic to see good intentions combine so successfully with drive, talent, and ambition to create such a thoughtful event. This was not a passive affair, but one in which a great deal of debate, discussion, and sharing of knowledge went on, all well-recorded and with a clear eye on defining and meeting achievable goals.

The day began with Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, a careful thinker fascinated by our future and how the present technology culture will inform it. He gave an absolutely fascinating discussion on issues pertaining to copyright, which have rapidly become altered by a trend toward the licensing of material rather than purchasing. E-books, for example, are not owned once purchased but only licensed, which means their use is highly restricted and subject often to the whims of the licensee. The recent overnight deletion of Orwell’s 1984 from idle kindles, without the permission of users, acting as one stunning example of how different the world has become. It is impossible to imagine a similar event occurring with a bookseller and a newly purchased hardcover. Mr. Doctorow made a number of novel and intriguing points regarding the power of copyright to promote and protect the sharing of media and stories, while also protecting the author from theft and distortion. Part of his argument on the important role of copying for creativity, can be found in this article in Locus Magazine. Mr. Doctorow also practices what he preaches, and you can download many of his books for free from his site.

My own session was shared with Patsy Aldana and Jane Pyper. Ms. Aldana spoke of her work with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), an organization that brings books to children during times of trauma, brought on by war or national disaster, for example. Her description of a volunteer reading to shell-shocked children in shelters in Lebanon, as bombs fell all around, was heart-breaking, incredibly humbling, and only one of many similar examples of the incredible work done by this organization all around the world. IBBY relies primarily on volunteers, and the contributions of donors. You can become a member of the organization for as little as $10.

Jane Pyper is the City Librarian in charge of the Toronto Public Library, the world’s busiest urban public library system. I was raised in libraries, and recall with great fondness the trips my family used to take to the library on every Saturday. I loved everything about that place, and knew every inch of it. Each visit would end with me reluctant to leave, but thrilled with the stack of books I could barely carry out on my own. Ms. Pyper spoke about the concrete things that needed to be considered in order to create a reading society in Canada. Her most important point, I think, was to stress that in the context of promoting literacy, we cannot afford to indulge elitist beliefs of good and bad reading. All reading is good reading, be it a novel, choose-your-own-adventure, graphic novel, comic-book, blog, magazine, or fact-book.

Thomas King, the Canadian author, entertained us all during lunch, with a demonstration of his considerable storytelling skill. He explained, in his inimitable fashion, how his path to becoming a writer was merely an accident; seeking refuge from bullies in a library put him on this path. One can only imagine how different world would be if that building he sought out had turned out to be a bakery.

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