Tag Archives: Sarah Selecky

Giving something back – one person at a time

We change the world one person at a time. And, to my mind there’s no better way to change one person than to give them the gift of literacy. It is, after all, the mark of civilization. It’s one of the first things archeologists ask themselves when studying a culture: did they have writing?

Back in April, Natalie (my wife) and I were visiting the tiny Caribbean island of Bequia. (In case you’re wondering, it’s about nine miles south of St. Vincent, and about 90 miles due west of Barbados). On our third day we visited The Fig Tree for dinner, because its Friday Fish Fry is legendary on the island, we were told. Our server, Tiny, asked us if it was our first time on Bequia. When I said yes, it is, she dropped her pad on the table and threw her arms around me, saying “Welcome to Bequia”. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by a server before. Natalie received her hug, gracefully if a little reluctantly (she’s not normally a hugger).

It had been a long day. A lot of walking. A few beers. Natalie popped to the loo. While she was gone I wondered why there was a bookcase on the restaurant’s back wall, full of books. Mostly, from what I could see at a distance, YA and children’s books. When she got back to the table she said: “I wonder who Ms. Johnson is?”

“Why,” I asked.

“Because the bathroom walls are papered with notes from children, thanking her for helping them with their reading.”

“Ask Tiny,” I said. We did. It turns out Ms. Johnson is the restaurant’s owner, and she runs a Saturday reading club on the terrace. She roped us in to help, which we were glad to do.Image

We already knew there was a problem with literacy on Bequia, because before we arrived we’d contacted a couple of ex-pat Americans who had just set up an after-school teaching facility (Bequia Learning Centre) in Port Elizabeth (Bequia’s capital) to help kids graduate, so they could go to High School in St. Vincent. We’d spent a few hours one afternoon with the kids there chatting and handing over some supplies we’d bought with us from Canada. The kids were shy, the way kids everywhere once were around adults, but keen to learn. And grateful, so grateful, for the few simple boxes of pens, pencils and packets of stickers we’d brought with us.

Which got us thinking. We were planning to set up a writer’s retreat on Bequia, a plan which has since come to fruition. In our preliminary research we’d noticed that these retreats typically offer yoga, along with writing. Why not, we asked ourselves, offer something a little different? Why not give something back to the community we were visiting? And, if we had assembled a room full of writers, why not make it about literacy? Because if we could manage to touch these children’s lives with a few boxes of coloured pens and some bags of stickers, imagine what we might do with stories. Imagine what we might do if we helped them tell their own stories. How amazing would that be?



Digital Dystopia – A Cautionary Tale

Yesterday, my friend Laure Baudot emailed me to tell me that one of her stories has been published by Found Press. She’s understandably stoked to have one of her stories picked up (I should think she’s also pretty happy that Sarah Selecky gave her work such a ringing endorsement and to be sharing an issue with the likes of Jessica Westhead). FPQ is a digital journal, so if you’d like to read Laure’s story (and a new story from Jessica Westhead) you can buy  it here (the price for the entire issue is $3.75).

However (and here we get to the cautionary tale part) be aware that you might have to labour a little before you have Laure’s words nestling gently on your hard drive. I did. It’s not Laure’s fault, and I don’t think it’s Found Press’s either. It’s just the current state of play in the digital book world. Found Press offers its stories (you can buy them by the story, for $0.99 each, or by the issue) in two formats – EPUB and MOBI. That’s entirely logical. They are currently the two most common formats for e-publishing, and give you the greatest coverage of devices and computing platforms for the least effort. So far so good.

Most of my digital book-buying has been done on my Kindle, which, for all its faults, does make the whole process quick and painless. Just a click of the buy button and the book is on the device a few seconds later. So I wasn’t prepared for the sink-hole which was about to open up at my feet when I chose the EPUB format and clicked the buy button on Found Press’s site.

I didn’t mind filling in the form which asked for my contact details. FPQ seems like something I’ll buy again in the future, so I was happy to take a minute to fill in my details. I waited for the email giving me access to the product. I recently purchased the second volume of Sarah Selecky’s Little Bird stories (not, you understand, by Sarah Selecky – it’s a competition she runs) by a similar process so at this point I was still sanguine that I’d have the issue any minute.

Sure enough, an email popped into my inbox a few minutes later, giving me a link which would download the file. I clicked it, and sure enough it downloaded almost instantly. So far so good.

Now I don’t think I’m a technological dinosaur. I may be the wrong side of 40 (ahem,,, 50) but my first degree was an electronics degree, and my masters was in digital systems. I’ve designed and built circuitry. I’ve coded in hexadecimal. I’ve worked on operating systems, and developed circuitry on digital simulators. I should have no problem accessing a stoopid little digital text file. Should I?

I imagined, in fact, that I’d probably have some little app already sitting on my Mac that would open the little doohicky up right away, and I could get reading. Notso. TextEdit wanted to have a go when I tried to open the file (I always try the simplest thing first – clicking on the downloaded file seemed like the way to go). I knew it wouldn’t work, of course, so I shut it down and looked around for another likely candidate. Adobe Reader didn’t seem interested, and neither did anything else. Back to the Found Press page. It suggested a couple of options:

EPUB files can be uploaded to and read on most non-Kindle e-readers. They can also be read on PCs and Macs, tablets, smartphones, and iPods, using a variety of free programs and apps such as Adobe Digital Editions, Stanza, Kobo, and iBooks.

My first inclination was to try Stanza. I downloaded it, copied it to my Applications folder and fired it up. Here’s what Stanza told me:


So, 20 minutes into the process, and I’m still no closer to getting hold of FPQ5, but I have a tangle of meaningless gobbledygook to untie. Never one to slavishly adhere to the advice of my parents (advice like Don’t Give Up at the First Obstacle and  Persistence Wins The Day) I gave up on Stanza and went in search of Adobe Digital Editions instead.

Now I’m a little steamed, so when it asks me (for the 2nd time in 20 mins) for my contact details, I’m less than impressed. I register, log in and finally (yay!) download yet another file, drag it to Applications and fire it up. Miraculously, it works. I now have FPQ5. At last.

But it was too hard to get it. Way too hard. WAAAAAYYYYY too hard. That’s me shouting. People less persistent than me (or more technologically challenged) would have given up a long time before they actually got their hands on the product. Actually, to be honest, I would have probably given up too, except I’d already paid for it. I felt as if I’d just crawled through razor wire and under a couple of machine gun emplacements to reach an enemy target. It certainly didn’t feel like shopping.

We have to figure this stuff out. People don’t want to be bothered with formats and standards, platforms and performance. They wanna read. That’s all. That’s why physical books are genius. All the fussing and nonsense that gets the book into our hands is hidden in the background, and we don’t have to deal with it. That’s the way it should be in the digital domain too. It should be invisible to the reader. It’s not my friend Laure’s job to figure this out, she just writes the stories. It’s probably beyond Found Press’s power to figure it out too – they are all about finding an audience for the stories. It’s the job of the software developers, the device manufacturers, the platform builders. Currently it’s a mess. Figure it out guys. Quickly. Before a generation of readers gives up and goes off to do something easier, and more fun.