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Anthony Fleischer

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The oral tradition and the digital revolution

I cherish the final No 500 of a limited print-edition of Benedict Wallet Vilakazi’s book of poems entitled ZULU HORIZONS. I was a student of Dr Vilakazi 65 years ago and I have always honoured his poetry. My latest novel ZULU is dedicated to Dr Vilakazi and selected verses from his book head each chapter. Some of his poetry can now be read on kindle!

Dr Vilakazi was an early champion in converting oral tradition to print. He tells stories which originated in marvelous traditional Zulu. Oral tradition is honoured in all cultures, old stories never die. Print followed Guttenberg, and in most cultures books are still cherished. Libraries hold millions of printed books, the individual mind can hold only a few. And now comes the age of electronic storage and instant transmission of information and of any story.

Long ago children listened to the stories they were told. Those who could not read were limited in their access to proof or denial, and those who could read were limited in their access to books. The current distribution of text books to schools in Africa is also severely limited. Imagine a kindle in the hands of every child who can read! Imagine instant download of any chosen text. Or imagine digital libraries in every school, with on-line classroom display screens in place of blackboards. Imagine global support for any teacher anywhere.

First man calls across a valley to a friend, tells the friend a story. Then he chips a message on stone and leaves it at the entrance to his cave as a warning. Or he receives great messages from a plethora of gods and repeats them on stone. Parchment was an advance, and the skin of an animal. The magificent Magna Carta was first recorded on the inside of a sheep’s-skin.

“The ink is dark brown, occasionally abraded but not powdering, so probably an iron-gall ink….The scribe would have used a quill pen, probably a goose quill…….. The parchment is a single skin.

Then man discovers print, handles it most reverently. He designs
elaborate holy words, tells stories for best-selling early bibles.
Then great publishers find great authors, print authority grows and great libraries become even more precious. Then man develops high-speed printing presses for newspapers with daily sales of 10 million copies – all telling stories, some the product of imagination.

Imagination is very personal. New ideas can arise in any mind and they can be expressed in any language. The individual thinker is sacrosanct and so is his language. The individual is under some threat today, but he will triumph. Today, thoughts and stories can be shared more rapidly than ever before. The oral tradition, the story told, is the precious thing. Print was a great advance, radio and TV merely followed, but perhaps the greatest advance since Guttenberg is the current digital revolution. It will give great freedom to writers. Great freedom to those who have a story to tell. Tell your story, place it into Kindle Store, and your ebook is available to the world.

Two of my novels, CHILEMBWE OF THE LAKE and ZULU, are featured on this website and can be downloaded from Kindle Store.

Anthony Fleischer