The Finnish Child’s First Book
“What books should a child read if he or she wants to become a scientist?” a friend of Einstein’s once asked the famed thinker. “If you want your kids to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales,’’ he responded. I wonder if Einstein’s answer inspired the Finnish government when it made reading part of its national policy. In 1938, the nation passed the Finnish Maternity Grants Act. Thanks to the law, the Finnish National Board of Education offers the parents of every newborn in the country a “Maternity Package” containing practical items like clothing, towels and bedding. It all comes in a big paper box that doubles as a baby cot — this cot reduces the chance the baby will sleep with the parents and risk being crushed or smothered to death. There is also a picture book in the box. Compared to the other practical things enclosed, it may seem like an afterthought; in retrospect, we realize it is the box’s most precious gift.
Finnish children often top the world’s countries in reading ability. Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluates 15-year-old pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading in 32 countries across the globe. In 2003, Finland ranked number one in both science and reading. Its rank dropped slightly in the 2012 report, falling to third place behind China and Korea. (This could be attributed to the fact that Asian children head to school at an earlier age than their Finnish counterparts. Finnish children do not go to elementary schools until the age of seven. Prior to that, their education consists of group play activities.) However, Finland still outperformed most other European countries by a big margin. We should not take for granted the role of that illustrated poetry book in the gift kit. For a child, it opens the door of reading, enabling him or her to absorb the rhythm and melody of language while the parents read the little poems in the book.
In Finland, which has the world’s highest number of libraries by population, reading is not something mandated by schools. It’s an integral part of life. The Finnish board of education uses the LUKIVA test to gauge the “preparatory ability for reading” in children aged three to five; this test ensures that they are well positioned to learn in the years to come. As for the PISA test, it made an interesting discovery with regard to Finnish people’s reading ability. The discrepancies between “good” and “bad” readers are rather insignificant. And income level is irrelevant: people who are poor are just as capable of reading as individuals who are rich. Education in Finland not only aims to position children on a winning path, it strives for victory for everyone.
When Chinese author Yu Hua was writing about youth, only two books stood on his bookshelf: Selected Works of Mao Zedong and Lu Xu Anthology. But once in a while, a few novels with missing pages would circulate amongst his classmates. Even if the beginning or the end of the book was missing, he would devour the text like a glutton. In the 21st century, the availability of information is as mind-boggling as the lowering of its value; it is not rare to see books sold cheaply by weight.
Some countries are still seriously lacking in information and know-ledge —a fact that is hard for us to comprehend. Fortunately, despite political restrictions and economic limitations, knowledge somehow finds its way into these places. Take for example a mobile library initiative that the Asia Art Archive (AAA) launched in 2011. The project has travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. At each stop, the AAA collaborates with local cultural and academic institutions to obtain new content adapted to local needs. The mobile library is stocked with books, periodicals, research papers and magazines from the AAA’s collections; it aims to engage local people with art as a form of knowledge. The library does not present cold, lifeless texts. Instead, it welcomes open editing and encourages readers to join in the revision of the material by writ-ing, drawing, attaching stickers or even tearing out pages. Every reader becomes an author in some way. The mobile library is much like a physical Wikipedia. It serves as a converg-ing point for the exchange of ideas; it also constitutes an experiment. The record of continuously edited content illustrates how knowledge can be re-written and transmitted. Political reform may bring about formal transformation, but only education can change the human mind. Real change is possible once the gate of knowledge is wide open.
A New Kind of Bookstore with Electronic Books to “Print on Demand”
A casual passerby walking past the librairie des puf near the Sorbonne in Paris’ Latin Quarter may not realize it is actually a bookstore – the Bookstore of the University Press of France. The place is not big; it’s just over 700 sq. ft. in size. And the store sells fewer books than the third arrondissement’s Used Book Café. But despite its meager offering of titles on the shelf, the librairie des puf offers a glimpse into the future of bookstores.
Compared to other countries in Europe and America, the French government has been very active in protecting independent bookstores. The government passed a law in 1981 to keep small stores competitive by fixing the price for books sold in France. Designed to prevent price wars amongst retailers, the law stipulates that the stores are not allowed to markdown their prices by more than 5%. So price is never really a consideration when buying books in France. (This is the Lang Law, named after Jack Lang, the former French Minister of Culture.) Naturally, the law is now applied to online bookstores and electronic books. It is worth noting that the sales tax for electronic books is higher than for printed books; nonetheless online bookstores and e-books still pose a big challenge to physical stores selling firsthand books. While there is virtually no competition in terms of price, independent stores are not as convenient as online retail or large chain stores. Many old bookshops have gone out of business.
The Bookstore of the University Press of France, or librairie des puf, which specialized in the humanities and social sciences, was forced to close shop in 1999, after 95 years of good and loyal service. But the birth of the Espresso Book Machine gave a second life to the historic establishment. It reopened in March of this year, offer-ing a third option to printed books and e-books. Combining printing and retailing, the bookstore can print out a physical book in the same time it takes to make a cup of espresso. The store does not stock piles of books. Instead, it offers a database of more than 3 million titles to browse and search. (Apart from big libraries, does any bookstore have enough space to store 3 million volumes?) Out of these 3 million, about 5,000 are available for print on demand. Once the customer has chosen the book he or she wants to buy, the machine instantly prints it out. The service costs the same as the book’s list price at an ordinary store. Not only is the cost of operation reduced (the owner says that selling 15 books a day is enough to cover the cost), it means cutting down fewer precious trees. Plus, the additional space in the store can be used for other cultural activities. This brand-new concept clearly opens up our imagination about bookstores. But now, it is probably high time for printing companies to worry about the future of their industry.
The Internet Says: If You Want a Book, You Get a Book
Africa is composed of 54 sovereign states, with a total population of 1.2 billion people speaking between 1,500 and 2,000 languages. In a context of extreme poverty ( 75% of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa), the elimination of illiteracy is a huge challenge that looks like an impossible mission. However, the mobile phone network has radically changed the situation. Benefitting from technological development, Sub-Saharan Africa has skipped the step of building infrastructure for fixed telephone networks and moved directly into the digital era. In just a few years’ time, mobile phone users in Africa have increased from 10% of the population to between 80% and 98%. That level not only facilitates communication, but also helps facilitate the reading of e-books.
The competition between physi-cal books and e-books may be a topic for intellectual debate in developed countries. But the situation seems to be a no-brainer in Sub-Saharan Africa, where books have always been rare. The non-profit organization Worldreader is using digital books to wipe out illiteracy in Africa. Since its foundation in 2010 through June 2016, the organization has distributed over 18,000 e-readers and 3 million digital books to 337 schools and libraries in over a dozen countries including Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. It has also launched the app Worldreader Mobile so that anyone with access to a smartphone or a computer can read more than 37,000 e-books stored online. The organization doesn’t just want to wipe out illiteracy, it also aims to eliminate poverty by using the energy and power of knowledge to improve Africans’ lives. That means lifting income levels, improving health conditions and eliminating inequality.