The New Face of Writing

When we love to read as young people, or even before this, to be read to as children – we love stories which open up imaginative worlds and connect us to places and people we wouldn’t know in real life.

Even stories based on fact ignite the reader’s imagination, taking the reader to a place constructed in the mind. Reading is a re-creation of the story and, in this way, each reader’s experience is unique.

When I discovered my grandmother’s autograph books I entered a world which she had inhabited before I knew her. I reconstructed this world in my own mind, prompted by the writing and pictures in the book, and fuelled by questions to my mother.

I love these books because they’re full of hand-drawn pictures and poetry. Some of the poetry is the typical verse which would have been popular choices for autographs, and some has been written especially for my grandmother. My grandmother was German but born in Russia, and lived there (Odessa) until she and her family fled to Germany during WWII. And so the entries are in Russian, German or Ukrainian.

The pages of these books contain history – dates, names, warm wishes and sincere words from people who were once young and are now long gone – but they are precious to me also for their lost art of handiwork. There’s a thrill in being able to feel the paint on the page, to see the brushwork or ink, and think that somehow the traces of people long gone are kept alive within these pages.

Here’s a copy of the introductory page from an illustrated poem written about a time when my grandmother’s father was separated from the family while he was working in Siberia. In this picture you can see my grandmother as a young girl, her mother holding her baby brother and her father rushing out to meet his family, happy to see them. And the whole story is written as poetry. How special is this!

Things have changed since the times of these autograph books. Even the fact that I can scan, crop, save and upload these pictures demonstrates how technology has created possibilities. We may lament the fact that people don’t have the fine motor skills to draw as well as they used to, or the time or inclination to write poetry by hand, but we have different options for reading and writing. Now we can hear a human voice read a story, and we can read an e-book on a crowded train if we have a mobile device and headphones.

Despite the changes throughout time, stories are still stories. Storytelling is a gift and each story is created anew each time it is read. The autograph book demonstrates a lovely collection of shared sentiments, but at the same time, the technology of our time has added to the enjoyment of reading by providing audio and visual platforms for the sharing of stories. Do you lament the passing of old traditions on paper, or do you embrace the variety of multiple platforms for reading and writing?

Here’s a Second Life animation take on Yeats’ poem, The Stolen Child, by Lainy Voom.

I met Tania Sheko in cyberspace when she wrote to ask if I would visit a blog she had set up for her students. I went to have a look at the blog and was really impressed by the clean, clever, intelligent look of the site, and by the writing I found there.

Tania is a teacher librarian at Melbourne High School and in her time, has taught English, French, German, English as a Second Language and Russian. She also has a Master’s degree in German and Teacher Librarianship.

But it was not only because of her academic credentials or her job as a teacher and librarian, that I thought of her when I was consider diverse people who might have something interesting to say about eBooks and the advent of technology into the reading/writing experience.

It was the fact that she is so dynamic. She believes libraries are the centre of learning and culture, and that teacher librarians play a vital role in a fast-changing, information- and media-rich world. She believes in lifelong learning, schools without walls, and she sees creativity and self-initiated learning in the involvement of young people in on line communities. This seemed striking to me, when so many people are alarmed and worried by new technology and its effect on children/books. I was too, at the time, and when I saw that Tania had won the Innovator’s Grant (awarded by the School Library Association of Victoria) and her blog, Brave New World, which I thoroughly recommend, had been nominated for the Best Teachers Blog category of the Edublogs Awards 2011, I knew had to have her!

Luckily she was willing to be a guest on this forum and I am sure you will find the things she has to say as interesting as I did.

18 Responses

    1. Min Dean says:

      I both lament and embrace it. Like with so many aspects of life; time inevitably brings changes to things you thought were certain.
      You find yourself longing for the way things were, but realising why they are the way they now are.
      Change is good; without evolution, the world stagnates, and we take things for granted.

      • Tania Sheko says:

        I agree with you, Min, that ‘time inevitably brings changes to things you thought were certain’. As a child I remember thinking that once something was in print it was to be revered. Even the commercial signs on shops and businesses were to be taken seriously. Now social media has democratised so much, opening up platforms for communication and debate, mixing up authors, journalists, politicians with ‘regular’ people, in a similar way that the Gutenberg press grabbed printed knowledge and ideas away from the elite.

        I also sometimes long for the way things were but, of course, this is nostalgia which is selective and often modifies memory to recreate a rosy picture of things.

        Thank you for your thoughts, Min.

    2. Maureen says:

      I guess Tania makes the point that many other posters and commenters have made during this forum; technology changes, mediums change, but at the end of the day, the act of bringing a story to life is not changing. The way we tell stories has evolved and changed but the essential nature of reading them and loving them has not.

      Does it matter if a person reads on an ereader if they still have imaginative worlds opened up to them? The unique response each reader is capable of having to a story they read is not essentially changed by the ebook revolution. The way they choose to read a story is changed, where they read it and how they choose to respond to it too, I suppose, but that is the nature of new things.

      ‘Do you lament the passing of old traditions on paper, or do you embrace the variety of multiple platforms for reading and writing?”

      This last point is especially interesting, Tania. I suspect that some (perhaps older?) authors who are most disapproving of the new e-technologies, dislike them because of the author’s more public lack of control over how readers can choose to respond to a text.

      The key words there being, ‘more public.’ With the expanse of the internet and ready and cheap technologies available to more readers, and because of the relative newness of these, the game has now changed so to speak, and the rules are less clear of what is and is not acceptable or professional.

      This always puzzles me a little. Instead of trying to ignore what is changing in the book publishing world, isn’t it better to try and understand it and use it to your advantage? And instead of denigrating or being embarassed or scared of new ways of being creative, isn’t it better to explore and embrace it? Or at least have an informed opinion before you label one thing or medium use as better “art” than another.

      Of course, I think like that because I don’t think the ebook revolution is the death of “true” story telling. I’m with Philip Pullman on stories and humanity. Human beings have been telling stories since we first began- even the act of communicating is in a sense a kind of storytelling. Communication methods change or differ from location to location, but that doesn’t mean communicating isn’t still intrinsic to humanity. I think stories- telling them and responding to them- are essential aspects of being human and for that reason they will never die.

      • Tania Sheko says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Maureen. I absolutely agree that, despite changes in the way we share and interact with the reading medium, storytelling is still storytelling. What is true storytelling? Are books any less effective than the oral traditions before them? One could lament the absence of the voice when comparing a book to a story recounted around the fire in the days before print. In a way, technology has brought back the personal voice through audio books and videos/trailers, don’t you think?

        As you say, the internet has been a game changer – more than we realise – and we don’t have a choice if we want to keep playing. We either inform ourselves and adjust the way we do things or get left behind. Some people still lament the death of the fountain pen but I would prefer to keep one of those as a lovely reminder of the different ways people have tried to make their mark.

      • Maureen says:

        I was going to bring up the change from oral story telling to written story telling but thought I’d leave it for someone else to bring up. You are right that in a way the audio book/video has brought back the personal voice. The only caveat I’d have is that it is not a true personalisation (to get all Adorno on everyone) because it is not spontaneous. The telling remains fixed each time because of the nature of technology. It’s availability and its fixed nature makes it different to oral story telling of the past to my mind.

        Technology has made it easier for people to connect with public figures with relatively little effort. There is instantaneous communication. Opportunities are boundless. It is a kind of demoncratisation, which can seem like it is taking power away from buisnesses and public figures, but really, if harnessed properly, is a way of gaining more power or prestige or attention for these people.

      • Emily Craven says:

        Hmm there may be a way you could bring traditional story telling back though. By holding a competition or such having people read a certain passage of work. Each person would do it a little differently adding personality. Because I don’t think the spontaneity comes so much from the words but from how the person says those words and the actions that go with it. I have seen several readings where an author has read the work, and then an actor has read the work. I would take an actor reading the work any day. There is something extra and alive.

      • Maureen says:

        Wow Emily! That is such a cool idea! People could upload their segment of the reading to youtube or you could have a day where people did it on the spot.

        Just to clarify, that’s what I meant by spontaenity. I meant that the act of reading aloud changes each time with mood and inflection and gestures and amount of mistakes you make etc.

        Actually, I think Neil Gaiman did do something like what you have suggested with the audio book version of American Gods. I am sure he ran some kind of competition on his website when it came to making it an audio where he picked the best readers.

    3. Tania I wanted to say how much I love that short Second Life animation take on Yeats’ poem, The Stolen Child, by Lainy Voom. It was exquisite and beautifully eerie!

    4. Blackbird says:

      I do think about getting an e-reader every so often – mostly for the space saving aspect – however, then I remember that some of my books belonged to my mother and father, and even to my grandparents.
      I want to be able to give my children and my grandchildren my books, and the books that my family have passed through the generations. Whenever I read one of the books that had belonged to my parents/grandparents, I feel so conected to them – even though my grandparents have been gone for years, I can still hold a part of them when I hold those books!

      • Tania Sheko says:

        Just because books are becoming available in different formats doesn’t mean we have to let go of our old books! My house is testament to this – walls lined with books. I still have my mother’s old German picture books with moving bits – not all moving unfortunately. These things are to be cherished, I agree. The bits of childish scribble remind me that my mother was also once a child. The e-reader would not take these cherished books away from you, it might allow you to take one e-reader or iPad away with you on holidays with many books loaded instead of overloading your suitcase.

        Thanks for dropping by to comment.

    5. Deb says:

      I have two shelves of books that I will probably never read. They were the books that I saved from the bin when my grandmother died. Like Blackbird, I can hold them or just look at them and feel connected to past generations. Some of them are so old that I’m scared to pick them up in case they fall apart. One was a prize that my grandfather won as a young boy. As the family historian, these will remain with me along with all the old photos and the family tree.

      I really loved the animation of Yeats poem and can see how technology can be used to connect to the e-generation to all the wonderful old literature that they might never experience otherwise.

      I remember watching the DVD of Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare) for a uni class because I couldn’t quite ‘get’ the story from the book. Having both on hand (along with the remote control) made it so much easier to understand what was going on. I guess having videos and such on the internet is the same thing.

      Really loving all the posts and comments.

      • Tania Sheko says:

        Deb, I think there’s room for both hard copy books and film/ebooks, etc. Why should we have to choose? I watch preschoolers read books and ebooks on ipads – mixing them up naturally. They don’t care which medium they use. For us, it may be more natural to feel the pages of a book, smell its booky smells, but for this generation of kids growing up it’s not an issue – whatever suits their purpose.

        I also have old books belonging to my grandparents on my shelves. They’re Russian classics which I could read if I had the will and discipline, but I won’t. I keep them as history.

        Thanks for coming in to comment!

      • Heather Giles says:

        Tania, I grew up in my grandparents house, they both died before I got to know them but in the books they left behind I did get glimpses of them and have very fond memories of holding these large beautifully bound books.In the writing desk were autograph books just like you described. Reading your post has brought back some wonderful memories. The Second Life animation take on Yeats poem The Stolen Child is absolutely “exquisite” as Isobelle said and makes you realise that the future of the written word, stories, poems will be enjoyed in wondrous ways… thankyou

      • Tania Sheko says:

        I’m happy to have stirred cherished memories for you, Heather. I’ve even kept little notebooks where my grandmother wrote down shopping lists, money spent and train journeys in Germany. One thing that’s missing is her voice and moving image which our children might have of us once we’re gone. Thanks so much for dropping by, Heather.

      • deb says:

        My son who is now 25 wasn’t much of a reader as a child, though he did have his favourites that I read to him. Now that he is grown he still does not read fiction a whole lot, but he does spend hours on the internet reading up on tropical fish which is his passion. Hey, reading is reading.

        I have no idea what he will do with all the books I own after I’m gone, but I’m hoping for grandchildren that I can share them with at least. I think it will be very interesting to see what kind of new technology will be available in a few years that I can also share with (prospective) grandchildren, or my nieces and nephews.

    6. Marta says:

      I came from Poland, so don’t have many books I can claim were once owned by my grandparents. When my parents brought me to Australia, in fact, life in Poland was still unstable – my mother told me that she had book casting an unfavourable light on the government of the time on which she had to place the cover of a romance novel so she could smuggle it past customs! However, I do have a handful of illustrated Polish fairytales which still occupy my bookshelves. I don’t read Polish well, so am not likely to revisit them. But I keep them, for the link to my heritage and my family, as Blackbird and Deb keep their books.

    7. Sionainn says:

      Like many of the others, I too have books that belong to grandparents and even great great grandparents. I also, however, have a floppy disc. The contents of this floppy disc are several stories my mother wrote for me when I was a child. Indeed the medium does change, but, if something really means something to us, there will always be something nostalgic that we can hold onto that reminds us of it because it’s not the medium that matters. It’s our feelings that do. I have files on my computer that are over a dacade old now and are completely irrelevent–and with some of them I don’t even have a program to open them anymore–but I never delete them because of the same reason. They remind me of events or people that I love. I can’t hold it, I can’t smell it but when I glance over them I still get the same hit of nostalgia as I do when I pick up those old books.