Teaching English, Ebooks, and the Public Domain

Forgive this slightly meandering diatribe, there are a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head, and today is the day I decided to try to give them form here on my blog. I’ve been thinking about three interwoven topics: the rather odd way we teach people “English” in high school, the oncoming electronic book revolution, and the public domain.

On the drive in to work, I was thinking what an odd subject “English” actually is. It is actually an amalgum of two separate disciplines which are only vaguely related. The first is mastery (or at least competence) in the basic mechanics of the English language: mastery of spelling, increasing your vocabulary, and constructing meaningful and precise sentences. The second is usually reading, analysis and criticism of some works which are viewed as “good” by some, well, teachers of the English language. For some reason, these works seem to be almost exclusively works of fiction or poetry, and are usually of considerable diversity. They also seem to have largely written by people who are now dead, people who lived not just before the birth of modern high school students, but often before the birth of their grandparents.

Leaving that for the moment, I recently was gifted an iPad by my lovely wife. I’ve discovered (somewhat to my amazement) that one of its primary uses for me has been as an ebook reader. I’ve been rather skeptical of the ebook reading experience, but without really making an effort, I’ve found that I have read five entire books on my iPad, and generally had a very positive experience. I’ve begun to actually buy books online. Yes, you don’t actually have the physical artifact anymore, but Amazon will nicely keep track of the books you have bought, and you can redownload them to your device (or new devices) whenever you please, so in some sense they are better than the physical artifact. They are also in general signficantly cheaper: the $9.99 pricepoint is gaining some traction in the market.

I’ve also found the iPad to be a convenient repository for the myriad of technical PDF files that I used to have to print to read. Suddenly, bankers’ boxes full of papers are obsolete: I’m just downloading them to my iPad and tossing them into the shredder. The paperless office might still be a myth, but the source of much of the clutter in my office is slowly evaporating. It’s a minor revolution for me and my reading habits.

And now, the public domain. As long time readers of this blog can assert, I’m a big fan of Project Gutenberg and other efforts to make books and materials which are in the public domain widely available. But even I was forced to admit that I didn’t read a lot of the freely available classics of literature that are available because reading on your computer just isn’t that pleasant. But I find reading on the iPad to be pretty pleasant, so I’m finding that I don’t have any excuse anymore. Many, many classics are available for free and I actually enjoy reading them using the iPad. The net result of this is that I’m reading more, and it is not like I didn’t read a lot before.

Okay, back to teaching English.

One of the reasons that I suspect that high school English curricula contain so many “old books” is that these old books are now in the public domain, and are therefore cheaper to buy. But in electronic format, these books aren’t just cheap, they are for all practical purposes free. I was scanning a few suggested reading lists for high school students such as this one. The page thoughtfully says that:

Students may find these titles at libraries and bookstores.

But somewhat tragically, the page doesn’t even acknowledge that online editions could exist. I conservatively estimate that at least half and likely three quarters of these books are available in electronic formats for free. Imagine what we could do for the literacy of young people if we made sure that all these titles were available to them.

And of course we can go further. Using the Kindle reader on the iPad, you can highlight and annotate your book, but you can also share your highlighting and see parts which are commonly highlighted. Imagine an ecosphere where we could archive the commentary of these classic works, and make them similarly available to all readers.

In my analysis thusfar, I’ve been unfairly ignoring the cost of the reader. After all, my iPad wasn’t cheap even by my standards, and putting one in the hands of high school students seems like a huge expense. To that, I would merely say that other good reader options are emerging at much more competitive price points, and it is likely to only get better over time. Currently the cheapest Kindle you can buy (and which I ordered this morning) is a mere $139, which still sounds like a lot when you compare it to a single paperback, but when you compare it to 20 cheap paperbacks, it’s about even, and when you compare it to 200 paperbacks, it’s pretty obviously a heck of a bargain. It’s also a lot smaller and lighter than carrying even a single book, you can adjust font sizes so even my presbyopic eyes can read comfortably, and you can even do a bit of web browsing and check your twitter and facebook feeds.

I read arguments that we are becoming an increasingly illiterate society. Too much TV, too many video games, too much consumption, not enough reflection. But I see glimmers of hope. The computer networks which bury us in spam also allow us to communicate as never before. The devices which seduce with cheap thrills can also be used to educate and inform.

I don’t think these devices are a panacea. Putting them in the hands of students is no guarantee of improved results, but I think they represent an interesting new opportunity. And even at age forty-six, I think they will reduce the cost of enhancing my mind by bringing some classic literature onto my virtual shelf, without cluttering my physical shelf.

Okay, that’s off my chest. I’m off to download Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.

3 thoughts on “Teaching English, Ebooks, and the Public Domain”

  1. Another reader possibility to point out is the iPhone or iPod Touch. Although many students would find it difficult to afford an iPad, many of those same students have an iPhone, and Kindle makes a reader.

    It’s surprisingly easy to read on the iPhone, even for this 58 year old. I regularly take mine out on the back porch and read. Also, if you use the iPhone, it means you’ve always got your “library” with you (standing in line at the grocery store, etc.).

    I also see that Kindle makes a reader for the Blackberry.


  2. Mark,

    “Gifted”? How is that different than “given”, other than sounding a little pretentious and silly? Time to re-read “Politics and the English Language” which was still available without claims of copyright on Guttenberg last time I looked.

    On another note, do you still go to the ATM workshop at Chabot? I enjoy your blogs every now and then, but haven’t worked on my 4.25 Schiefspiegler mirrors since I left the bay area six years ago.

    Keep up the good work.


  3. I am in agreement with your thoughts, please update us on how the physical Kindle works out for you. My focus on the physical Kindle would be to read in sun light. Thanks for your great blog!

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