Monday, May 07, 2012

Beyond the net: or, why you should donate books on May the 26th

[This post is a rather long-winded way of announcing that the launch of the Oceania-themed double issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief will be held at the Onehunga Workingman's Club, at 158 Onehunga Mall, on Saturday May the 26th, from 4 until 7 pm. There'll be a kava bowl and food upstairs, and booze downstairs. As I explain below, we'll also be taking donations for a worthy cause...]

The 2009 sci fi flick Surrogates is set in a future where humans spend almost all of their time lying in bed, hooked up to virtual reality machines. In the world of The Surrogates, virtual reality is so popular that people often forget that they have real, flesh and blood bodies that require feeding and cleaning. I sometimes think about the dystopia of Surrogates when I read the pronouncements of the more fervent evangelists for the internet. Over the past decade or so a succession of businessmen, superprogrammers, and politicians have proclaimed that the net has the potential to bring prosperity, equality of opportunity, and wisdom to the benighted peoples of the world. Too many of the apostles of the net, though, seem to forget that a troubled world, full of intractable distances and unstoppable forces, exists outside cyberspace.

David Willetts, Britain's Minister for Universities and Science, recently joined the ranks of the internet evangelists. Announcing plans to make all of the academic research published in Britain freely available online, Willetts proclaimed that the internet had the potential to 'return knowledge' to 'the people who paid for it', and eliminate problems of access to education. Willett seems to believe that, simply by putting academic material online, he can eliminate the vast gaps in resources between Britain's exclusive top-tier universities and the rest of its tertiary sector, and atone for the increases in student fees that have put many young Britons off tertiary study.

Willett's online archive of academic material will benefit researchers who work outside universities - people like local historians, genealogists, and journalists - but it will not substitute for a training in scholarly methods. The archive won't turn millions of Britons into brilliant autodidacts, and it won't destroy the enormous advantages that a few years at an elite university give to a few young Britons.

But David Willett is not alone in his immoderate enthusiasm for online research. In many Western nations, including New Zealand, university libraries have for years now been merrily disposing of supposedly obsolete back issues of journals, and signing up to online databases which provide access to those journals. Creaking old books have gone into the shredder, too, and been replaced by links to electronic archives like Project Gutenberg.

There is no doubt that the creation of online databases and libraries has benefited many scholars. Instead of groping about in shadowy library stacks, students at many universities can now access old articles or obscure tomes with the click of a mouse. Writers can see their articles and books reach more dispersed audiences. It is easy to forget, though, that in many parts of the world online research is a physical and financial impossibility. In these places scholars must work outside the vast virtual reality machine we call the internet.

Last Friday I met Sisi'uno Helu, the Director of the 'Atenisi Institute, a private university on the swampy western fringe of Nuku'alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga. 'Atenisi was founded in the 1960s by Sisi'uno's late father Futa, and became famous for its dedication to classical scholarship, Tongan song and dance, and democratic politics. But Tonga is a poor country with a ruling elite that is uncomfortable with free speech and open enquiry, and 'Atenisi has often struggled to find resources. Helu and his students raised and maintained the university's buildings themselves, and their library and laboratories were always meagrely stocked. The Helus are a famously musical family, and in Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's film about 'Atenisi, Sisi'uno's opera singer sister Atolomake is shown performing on a makeshift stage near a wild section of the Tongan coast. As wave after enormous wave breaks on the rocks behind her, Atolomake sends her voice higher and higher, striving to drown out the dissonance with phrases from Verdi. Her performance becomes a metaphor for the struggle of 'Atenisi to rise above the blows of poverty and persecution. 
Last Friday Sisi'uno and I swapped stories about Tonga's extraordinarily slow internet connection. As a tourist in Tonga, I'd found the slow pace of the net an irritation; as an educator, Sisi'uno finds it a disaster. Tongans with access to computers can, with a bit of patience, check their e mails, and scan the news at Matangi Tonga or The Guardian Online. The slowness of their internet service makes  it very difficult, though, to perform the complex searches required by academic databases, or to download material from online journals. A scholar at the University of Auckland can click his mouse and download the pdf version of an essay from the Journal of the Polynesian Society in a couple of seconds; his counterpart at 'Atenisi would have to wait for many hours, or until one of the frequent disruptions of Tonga's internet service knocked him offline.

Even if Tonga's internet service were improved, most of its students would have little hope of roaming the world of online scholarship, because they cannot rely on regular access to a computer. Few Tongans can afford a laptop, and few schools can provide more than a handful of computers to their students.

Tonga's poor internet connection and lack of computers make old-fashioned 'hardcopy' books and serials crucial to the education of its young people. Unfortunately, the country is not richly endowed with either bookstores or libraries. The Friendly Islands Bookshop has a virtual monopoloy on the book trade in Tonga, and is notorious for charging high prices and carrying inadequate stock. The last time I visited the Nuku'alofa branch of the FIB, the only novel I could find was a paperback copy of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which was priced at a cool seventy-five pa'anga. Tonga has a long and heady literary tradition, and has in recent decades produced a world-class fiction writer in Epeli Hau'ofa and a renowned poet in Konai Helu Thaman, but the FIB is dominated by men who wrote thousands of years ago in  languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. It is easier to find a dictionary of Hebrew than a Tongan phrasebook in the store.

The deficiencies of the Friendly Islands Bookshop would not matter so much if Tonga possessed a good public library system. But Tongatapu, the country's capital island and home to seventy percent of its people, lacks a single public library. Tonga has a literacy rate which compares well to those of much wealthier nations like New Zealand, but its people lack the plentiful supplies of books that Kiwis take for granted.

Last Friday Sisi'uno explained that, because of the inadequacies of the internet and the absence of public libraries on Tongatapu, 'Atenisi's library was very important to its students, and badly needed replenishing.

When I presented her with a copy of the forthcoming issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief, which includes some work by her father, and with copies of a series of publications by Titus Books, Sisi'uno told me that she'd add these volumes to the shelves of the 'Atenisi library. She said that more donations were welcome, and it occurred to me that we could use the upcoming launch of brief 44-45 to collect some books to send to Tonga.

With Sisi'uno's agreement, then, I'm encouraging the bibliophiles who turn up to the launch of brief at the Onehunga Workingman's Club on Saturday the 26th of May to bring a book or three with them. Whether it's a novel you want to pass on, a political polemic you feel evangelical about and possess in duplicate, a textbook you no longer study or teach, or a tome by Scott Hamilton you bought out of guilt and now want to get rid of, your gift will be appreciated. The donated books will be packed up and posted to 'Atenisi. If you can't bring books to donate, you can always leave some coins in a cup to help pay for postage. For more information about the launch, or about donating books, flick me an e mail at

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a school of thought that Americans are getting dumber, since fundamentalism and paranoid conservatism are gaining strength. Maybe all the flat screens and cell phones are traps, keeping people from taking the trouble to actually learn something.

3:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...


I'm clearing out cupboards etc and have already simply given away about 60 books and I have so many I am even throwing some straight into the rubbish.

But I have a range of things (not just novels although there are a lot of such but one can learn a lot from novels - even "factual" things - some also are technical or non fiction in general and still will be useful) I could easily give if people want to pick them up from me here. Obviously not from my own collection but I have some duplicates.

Partly I simply have too many old books here and I want to make room in the house.

The better stuff I can offer at a reasonable price.

Books as books retain their use...there is only a fraction of what is in books on the internet. Also digital storage is less reliable and not as long lasting than physical or "hard copy" storage..but there are other aspects of "digital books" that are good.

But like art, I think people need to learn hands on stuff before going into the virtual and I believe for example that students learning animation do just that.

Now even scientists fall prey to the mistake of relying on the internet and forget to do certain kinds of individual and or book based or library research.

In some ways Tonga and other Pacific nations) should think seriously about shutting down computers and TV etc while it can...think of the mass of drivel on TV and its got worse since TV first started here in NZ.

But not everyone lies reading so TV etc is great for people such as my son who don't read very much.

Some complex issues.

6:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Read more:

8:42 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that last comment was unhelpful

4:13 pm  
Anonymous give up books said...

Richard etc I have long ago stopped reading books. I also don’t bother to read long articles in the internet. I would suggest you adopt the same attitude. I read drivel for years and so what. I got nothing out of it.

Life is living. Not books.

9:27 pm  
Anonymous books suck said...

PS If I don’t like to read, then what do I do in my ‘down time’ I hear you ask…well I like to listen to the radio, mainly talk radio whilst on the internet or I play video games. It just feels more productive than reading a book.

9:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Your point?

11:04 pm  
Blogger me said...

As a great man once sang, "there's more to life than books you know, but not much more."

A great idea. what sort of books would be most useful Scott?

11:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

aren't many books banned in tonga?

salacious materials and left-wing materials for eg??

1:59 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi folks,

Michael Horowitz, former Director of 'Atenisi and current deputy Director of the Vava'u Institute in the north of Tonga, has just e mailed me to tell me he's flying down for the launch. I'm hoping that we'll be able to smuggle a few books back with him when he returns to Tonga. Even if he has to pay for excess luggage, it should be cheaper to send books with him than by airmail.

I have heard vaguely about the censorship of books in Tonga, but I don't know any details. It might be unwise to try to bring manuals on the occult or sympathetic treatises on Satanism into the country. Paul Janman and Brett Cross probably ought to leave their Aleister Crowley tomes on their shelves!

I know that, by law at least, Marxist literature is banned from Fiji, but I'm not sure if the same taboo exists in Tonga.

Sisi'uno said that she was bringing some books on business and - I think - accounting back to Tonga with her, but didn't give the impression the 'Atenisi library had gotten much else lately. I'm going to donate a bunch of books - novels, biographies, histories - which I've accumulated on my raids on op shops out here in West Auckland over recent months.

11:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ten surprisingly banned books:

11:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I once sold a book to an engineer from the Solomons how to build a pump or pumps. It was a good price.
He appreciated it. Despite the internet and data bases, information of all kinds is still found in books or journals etc. This is not to say that books as objects made of cellulose wont eventually be replaced by some form of computer equivalent.
the question here is not where I read books or "live life" but that places such as Tonga and Samoa etc need books (and in this case Atenisi)...

On a long term I can probably supply books I don't need (and some of or many of them will be good) but to get the best ones, if Atenisi can arrange something I can provide them at reasonable price. But I don't want to pay transport or postage and packing costs. And I'm not a charity.

My own financial situation is not much bet than the average Tongan's - but that said, I can find stuff - but anything substantial will cost. And I have or have had books on just about every subject you can name.

Atenisi or other Tongans (or others) should think of it (spending on good books of many diferent types or subjects) as an investment in their future.

They need to think like business men and women. I believe in business investment.

1:54 am  
Anonymous Ciaran said...

had a lk at that documentary film and tho interesting it just lks like a study is decline...ppl who were once great seafarers living in third world housing...rearing pigs...wearing western clothing...and people were shabby and not in great physical shape...repeating the empty phraseology of western metaphysics...athenian as well as christian...what about the real culture of the polynesian ancients who crossed the great seas and performed great deeds...maui etc...that is the film i would like to see...a pacific jason of the argonauts

11:22 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Hi Ciaran,

Thanks for your interesting criticism of Tongan Ark. Yes, I too would like to see an 'Argonauts of the Pacific' but Tongan Ark represents uncomfortable contemporary (perhaps also eternal) realities. I think a strictly 'positivist' approach would be equally flawed.

The film is also an indictment of the powers that are not allowing the modern 'argonauts of the mind' like Futa Helu to create paradoxical cultural hybrids of Eurocentrism and Tongan purism. In this way, they rob such innovators of their creativity and free will.

So Tongan Ark examines a proud but exploitative and intolerant Tongan society and government. It does so in the context of the global economic and cultural hegemony of consumerism and utilitarianism that has hijacked critical education.

Futa Helu's struggle against these forces in circumstances of undeniable poverty and decay, was truly heroic. The film deals in all these paradoxes and more.

12:55 pm  
Blogger bielby said...

Good news for Tonga on the internet front at last:

10:54 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for that biebl. It's hard to imagine Tonga with a fast connection, but I suppose if Papakura could get a cafe that served chai lattes, nothing should be unthinkable! And let's hope all the world's insufferable IT enterpeneur-gurus - the David Farrar types who infest the internet - don't start holidaying in the Friendly Kingdom with their blackberries...

12:03 pm  
Anonymous Ciaran said...

paul janman...thankyou for your reply which is more than most people give me...i have one more question on reflection...

what do you think of the physicality of tongan people...especially the men.

thanks in advance.

1:47 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Hi Ciaran,

Not quite sure what you're question is. Also, I'm wondering what you meant by the 'Athenian metaphysic' in your previous post. You might want to flesh these out a bit.


10:28 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Tongan Ark will have its World Premiere as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival at Sky City Theatre on August 4th at 4.15 pm.

Included is a live performance by the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts and a free panel discussion, performance and drinks at the Civic Wintergarden afterwards. Tickets go on sale this Friday. Discounted group bookings are available.

Follow us on facebook:

See also the Tongan Ark website:

Hope to see you all there. Malo! Paul

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