Friday, May 31, 2013

Life. Language. Learning... The Archive


This is the archive of
a blog exploring aspects of 
life, language and learning
from the perspective of 
a communication and learning researcher. 


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Images of Readers - Presentation by Lize Kriel

This is the fourth installment in a series on presentations from the Print, Publishing and Cultural Production in (South) Africa Seminar held at the University of Pretoria on Monday, 13 May 2013.

Riveting. Galvanasing. Explosive. Not descriptions of the average late-morning academic seminar session. Yet this finely crafted presentation with its gripping visuals and powerful call to action had an immediate impact that provoked deep thought and lively discussion days later. Since perceptions of the presentation ignited some controversy among undergraduate students, I would like to point out that it presents a neutral observation and seeks explanations, in the spirit of the academic endeavour, and should be seen in that light. 

Images of Readers

Prof. Lize Kriel, Pretoria University Department of Visual Arts

Image: Gustave Courbet (Public Domain) 
Images of readers - usually of the impressionistic, chocolate box variety - have been an established feature of Western art for centuries. While the general image seems overly familiar, this presentation investigated the cultural assumptions underlying these well-known images, and the gaping voids in the seeming over-abundance. 

The Privileged Lady of Leisure
Through the presenter's lovingly curated collection of image after image of readers, a theme clearly began to emerge. The reader presented and idolised in historical Western art is more often than not a woman. Not just any woman: reading has, historically, been the domain of the privileged, not only because of literacy but also because reading for pleasure calls for free time. And so it is that the plethora of art work repeatedly portrays European ladies of leisure, often in luxurious or outdoor surroundings (and, for some apparently unrelated reason, in various stages of undress.) While the activity of reading can signify knowledge and power, however, these readers seem removed from the real world where action is taken, thanks to a male benefactor who bestows upon them the luxury of boudoirs and gardens and a deadening abundance of leisure time to live vicariously through books over which they languidly and elegantly and anonymously pore. 

Where are the Other Readers? 
Judging by historic art, and even more recent photography, leisure readers are women - privileged and pale. The central question raised by Prof Kriel is where the other readers are, beyond this mode and gender and race? While they certainly exist, they are not nearly as frequently documented.

The occasional men who are pictured with books, unlike the ladies of leisure, tend to have names - big, intellectual, influential names. These men read with reason and purpose tied to action, even when they happen to be reading for leisure. 

Across the race barrier, the pickings are even more sparse, specifically in South African art and photography. Documented images portraying black Africans with books tend to have a colonial angle: these usually feature local missionaries who have completed rigorous training in the imported religion, or school children who have received books donated from abroad (presumably in a language they do not yet understand). Although books signify knowledge and power, these rare images of African readers cast their subjects in a submissive role. However, although sparsely documented in images, the book did indeed play its part in empowerment, as discussed elsewhere this seminar

Image: Schoolgirls by Gerard Sekoto
Tackling Stereotypes
Amid the dearth of images of female and black South African readers, there are welcome examples of reading for pleasure, power and subversion. Artist and musician Gerard Sekoto often portrayed books and readers as focal points in his paintings of everyday South African life. The painting alongside, entitled Schoolgirls, was cited as an example of enthusiastic, and judging by the extent of enthusiasm, most likely also subversive, reading. Audience response to the painting was remarkable, not only because it was so welcome and uplifting, but also because, as Prof. Kriel pointed out, one simply has to wonder what these girls are reading with such gusto. 

The presentation ultimately poses the question whether the dearth of images of multi-gender, multiracial readers from South Africa is a reflection of circumstance or a reflection of social reality, and what the implications are. As a call to action, it is an open invitation to visual artists to fill the void and present us with local images of readers. And perhaps it is an invitation to all South Africans to make reading such a part of life that its visual representation becomes almost unavoidable. 

There are many possible reasons for the scarcity of images of readers from South Africa. The country's history of conflict and inequality meant that leisure time for reading has rarely been abundant. Moreover, economic circumstances still mean, to this day, that access to books cannot be assumed. Moreover, although enough blame has been cast on the education system locally, one sadly has to wonder whether it has yet resulted in levels of literacy that make reading more pleasure than pain.

It is also true that among the many rich cultural production activities in the region, written text was not a traditional means of communication: this function was performed in other media like paintings, bead work, weaving, oral histories and music that were all encoded and decoded with very specific meaning. For this reason I would personally venture to say that if the definition of "reading" were expanded to include the traditional means of cultural production mentioned above, we may find a wealth of images. 

Finally, as technology spreads, reading in the traditional sense increasingly involves a screen rather than a book.  In Africa this has already reached the proportions of an informational earthquake. It will be very interesting to see if zealous reading for pleasure might not become a more prominent feature than ever before - in life as well as in art. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Contemporary Print Culture from Collections - Presentation by Sally Hughes

This is the third installment in a series on presentations from the Print, Publishing and Cultural Production in (South) Africa Seminar held at the University of Pretoria on Monday, 13 May 2013.

This presentation offered a glimpse of a world that is in many ways very different from the one explored in the rest of this seminar: it took the participant from the vibrant and often undocumented cultures of Africa to the meticulously catalogued universe of collections - museums, galleries and the like. As something of an organization fiend (you hadn't noticed?) I must admit that I find the systematic nature of collections deeply reassuring, and this presentation offered an interesting glimpse into the reasoning behind the publishing endeavours that have become an integral part of cultural curation. 

Contemporary Print Culture from Collections

Sally Hughes, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies

Books published by museums, galleries and exhibitions offer what Dr Sally Hughes calls a "legacy of an ephemeral event". In this respect, publications from collections are a very unique kind of book for a rather unique (and often elite) audience. What sets these books aside, in an era where so many cultural products are heading for our computers, tablets and smartphones, is that they are stubbornly resisting digitisation. Moreover, while these books have a small, niche market and a high cost, their survival is remarkable. Here, it appears, is a genre of books that is here to stay. The presenter highlighted the reasons for collections to publish, for visitors to buy books and the general development of books from collections. 

Reasons for Collections to Publish
The most obvious reason for collections to publish is as a source of funding. However, considering the high costs of production and the relatively limited target market, there must be more to it. Dr Hughes emphasised the fact that in addition to funding, and the twin aim of developing a collection's brand, these books also develop their audience to have a deeper awareness of a particular exhibition - and their interest in later exhibitions. Moreover, many collections focus on children as a potential audience for their exhibitions, both present and future. One notices that a profit motive is not entirely absent, yet publications from collections undoubtedly also aim to serve the greater good. 

Reasons for Visitors to Collections to Buy Books
In a contemporary museum or exhibition, all roads lead to the gift shop at the exit. As mentioned above, these shops serve the very valuable purpose of funding collections the public has the privilege to access, and books are generally among the more high-ticket items up for sale. Why is it that visitors sustain the production of books from collections, rather than simply opting for memorable trinkets? Books from collections are often bought as souvenirs, especially in the case of temporary collections. Museums, galleries and exhibitions are also (if somewhat regrettably) considered a rare form of cultural capital, and there is no denying the unspoken authority of a coffee table book from a respected museum. No point having that on your Kindle, is there? Yet buyers' genuine interest in content should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to images. Ultimately, buying a book from a collection is also a way of giving something back, especially in museums where the entrance fee is subsidised or nonexistent. 

Development of Books from Collections
In a bid to serve its public and remain competitive, books from collections are evolving their approach. Whereas images were once accompanied by more extensive explanatory text, they now dominate pages at the front of most books, leaving sparser text for the notes at the back of the book. This makes sense not only in terms of readers' primary interest in the images, but also production costs. In addition, collections are increasingly taking more creative approaches to set their publications apart and make them more relevant to a larger public. An example from this presentation was the collaboration of the British V&A Museum with Japanese anime artist to create a series of graphic novels. Although print is likely to survive the digital revolution in this particular genre, I personally would expect collections to expand into the digital terrain, of not to replace its publications, to connect with them and, in particular, to woo the wired younger generation to the hallowed halls of museums. 

My burning question: Although many collections are true gems, they sadly tend to be a rather elitist institution. Due to high costs, their publications tend to be even more so. What avenues would make collections, and their publications, more accessible (and perhaps more palatable) to a broader public? This question is especially pertinent in the developing world with its vast young population whose future success will depend in great part on the inspiration of great ideas. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Intersection of Manuscript and Print in Timbuktu - Presentation by Shamil Jeppie

This is the second installment in a series on presentations from the Print, Publishing and Cultural Production in (South) Africa Seminar held at the University of Pretoria on Monday, 13 May 2013. 

Until very recently, to the average person the name Timbuktu simply signified a very remote and possibly fictional place. I remember my delight, as a child, at actually finding it in an atlas: Timbuktu really existed! In 1988 the ancient desert city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the distinctive cultural treasures of its ancients mosques and mausoleums. In 2012, however, Timbuktu made news headlines for an unfortunate reason: violent conflict in Mali threatened the antiquities housed by the city. Among Timbuktu's antiquities is a rare, historic collection of manuscripts with intriguing implications. 

The Intersection of Manuscript and Print in Timbuktu

West African manuscripts are loose-bound. Image:
The Timbuktu Manuscript Project at the University of Cape Town has been instrumental in present-day cataloguing, archiving and study of the Timbuktu manuscripts since 2003. This presentation introduced the ground-breaking role of the project, not only in the study of these manuscripts but in raising awareness of pre-colonial book culture in Africa. 

After two decades of dedicated work on the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu, Shamil Jeppie relates his findings with all the contagious zeal of an Indiana Jones in tweed. He marvels at the fact that, in the face of such compelling evidence, official histories of Africa still stubbornly insist that the book arrived in Africa with European colonists just a few hundred years ago. Since the Timbuktu Manuscript Project studies manuscripts from across Africa, there is ample evidence of rich book traditions, both in West and East Africa. Interestingly, manuscripts in West Africa were loose-bound in leather covers (see image), while those further East were bound much in the manner of today's books. The reason for the East-West divide is not apparent. 

It is true that South African interest in Timbuktu has drawn criticism, most recently in an article by Hans Pienaar in Business Day (March 5, 2013), who quotes an unnamed American author as saying that Timbuktu was no literary Mecca but simply "a giant Xerox machine in the desert." In the study of manuscripts, where meticulous copying by hand far predated the printing press, Professor Jeppie retaliates that the phenomenal human "Xerox machine" is in fact worthy of celebration. 

In particular, the presentation investigated the contribution of the Timbuktu collector Ahmed Belarif, who not only obtained and curated manuscripts, but also copied them. In many cases it appears that his copying work evolved into something of an editorial function: his copies of jurisprudential texts became considerably heftier than the originals. With 20/20 historical hindsight it is also ironic to note that in an essay of his own, entitled On the Importance of History, Belarif accuses his contemporaries in Timbuktu of disregarding the value of their heritage. A further striking point is that with the introduction of movable type for Arabic script, Belarif has no qualms about the innovation, unlike rather luddite copyists elsewhere who considered print something of a perversion of their craft. 

The presentation closed with images from the Timbuktu Manuscript Project collection, and I was so riveted that I would not have been surprised to find a film of manuscript dust on my shoulders at the end of it. It turns out that, although Timbuktu is a real place (all too brutally real, considering recent events), it is nonetheless the stuff of legend. 

My burning question: Although I am fiercely in favour of acknowledging pre-colonial cultural production in Africa, one cannot ignore the fact that these manuscripts are in Arabic script, with the vast majority of them in the Arabic language. Although it arrived well before the European colonists,  the Arabic script and language were patently not homegrown. The question, then, is to what extent these manuscripts should be viewed as representative of cultural production in Africa. Let the record show that I am absolutely backing the home team here... but inquiring minds want to know. 

Book History in South Africa: Recent Developments and Prospects - Presentation by Archie L. Dick

By sheer serendipity I was lucky enough to attend the first sessions of the Print, Publishing and Cultural Production in (South) Africa Seminar at the University of Pretoria Graduate Centre this morning. Supported by the University of Pretoria, Oxford Brookes University, the British Academy and the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), the event brought together scholars from the motley fields that kindle the interdisciplinary study of Book History. The sessions gave both an introduction to the value of Book History in general and some unique interpretations of what this field means in Africa, where "books" do not always involve either paper or text. Although I was only able to attend the first few presentations, they were so thought-provoking that I would like to briefly share their essence here in the next few posts, beginning with the first presentation of the day. 

Book History in South Africa: Recent Developments and Prospects

Image: UKZN Press
Professor Archie Dick's recent book The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures (pictured left) has established him as something of a figurehead among local Book History scholars. During this presentation he successfully demonstrated the value of the study of Book History with a teasing glimpse into his own detective work on books and reading in South Africa's checquered past. 

The presenter's central argument was that this field of study intersects significantly with other areas of society and culture throughout history. Two examples from his own research cemented the point. 

On the one hand, he quoted an "unsolved mystery" in the the history of the Afrikaans language. This case involved a comparative glossary of words in the Dutch, Khoi and Latin languages compiled by an early Dutch settler at the Cape. While correspondence regarding the list survives, it seems there was a huge bungle with the attribution of authorship commonly acknowledged in histories of the language, while no trace of the actual original list has yet been found. This very crucial link in the development of a language that became so contentious at the southern tip of Africa is simply missing, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. 

On the other, he referred to the unexpected impact on South Africa of an unlikely agent: none other than the nineteenth century novelist Charles Dickens. It turns out that Dickens had a fourfold influence on affairs here in the south of the supposedly Dark Continent. Firstly, his works were serialised (generally without the disgruntled novelist's permission) in South African newspapers, and became wildly popular, being read aloud and passed along. Secondly, the arrival of his full novels in local libraries stirred up a furore over what virtuous locals considered to be their questionable morals. Thirdly, Dickens' disctinctive characters soon found their way (once again without their creator's consent) to the stage in homespun scripts that brought ephemeral stardom to amateur thespians around the country. Finally, and most strikingly, works like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities played a cameo role in South Africa's own revolution. Since these novels were considered classics, they were freely available, unlike overtly political books that were banned lest they foment uprising. Yet the powerful undercurrents of class conflict in these works played an insidious role in inspiring young intellectuals during the liberation struggle against the apartheid regime. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Dickens had written in A Tale of Two Cities. He may as well have been describing the Struggle

These fascinating flights through the past served to demonstrate how Book History casts a unique light on what the speaker calls "the making, un-making and re-making of history". It is not at all impossible that this engaging presentation recruited more than a few newcomers into the fold.

My burning question: During the seminar several references pointed to forms of cultural production that, although they are not "books" made of paper or containing alphabetic texts, have been massively significant in South African culture. These include rock art and story cloths. I would love to know where Book History situates these very important artifacts in its study. Are they the "books" of history? 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Literacies Lost

In education and technology circles there has been much talk in recent years of multiliteracy - the ability to communicate in different technological media that has become as vital as reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic in today's world. Like the traditional literacy that went before, multiliteracy vastly expands one's platform for receiving, processing and sharing information. There is a lot to be said for the ability to read, write, blog, vlog and tweet one's way through life. Yet having unboxed all these shiny new skills, it is worth checking the bill: what price have we paid? 

A mind no less great than that of Socrates once warned against the dangers of the written word. He argued that writing would be inflexible to subtleties of meaning, blunt the powers of memory and, most dangerously, lead to the risk of superficial understanding. Whatever the virtues of writing (and my own insatiable indulgence in the written word), I can't prove him entirely wrong. Since Socrates' day, similar objections have been raised about all manner of innovations - not least the new media. In fact, as the power of the media expanded from stone tablets to tablet computers, so did the potential for problems. If Socrates was concerned that writing would tarnish the memory, I shudder to think what he would say of the multiliterate shopping list, which could be anything from a quick photograph of the refrigerator to the Out of Milk smartphone app. (Not to mention the fact that I had to Google the app's name, having forgotten it. Googling is another vital multiliteracy, of course.) 

Reading the Word and the World
Education icon Paolo Freire, in his work on adult literacy, referred to "reading the word and the world". His take strongly emphasised the empowerment that came with literacy. However, it is the skill of reading of the world - those fine details that do not translate into print - that seems to me to be the literacy we increasingly misplace when we learn to read... and may be permanently losing with our nonstop-hyperactive-always-on multiliteracies. 

The Life Literates
I am honoured to have known a good handful of people who do not read or write words - so-called illiterates. And time and again I have been humbled to find that I am the one who is lost in their deep, focused, enveloping presence - a presence that is not disturbed by text or tweet or notification. They are the ones who have read the thoughts I had not dared to cross the threshold of awareness. The ones who analyse the codes of Nature. They are the ones who write in gardens with immortal evergreens, in crafts that far outlive them, and in the stories that they retell from memory and embellish in the heat of the unrecorded moment, never to be rewound, paused or replayed. They are the ones who, rather than reap the words of those gone before, or sow their own for the future, flourish in the ever-evasive present. 

Yes, there are injustices in this. Literacy as we know it is the usher for opportunity, and multiliteracy perhaps even more so. Today literacy is theoretically a basic human right, and one nobody should be robbed of it. But how much of the full spectrum of human experience has the modern multiliterate become unable to read and write? 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Work Ethic: An Inside Job

Image: David, Petrol Attendant
and Work Ethic Master, via mtcleroux
I have come to the conclusion that fears of a zombie apocalypse may be perfectly justified. With a small modification. It is not the Walking Dead that are to be feared. It is the Working Dead. 

Defining Work
A dear mentor of mine used to intone, mantra-like, that work is to the soul what food is to the body. And I agree. I love to work: work is my play and I approach it in that spirit. Work, here, is defined as meaningful, constructive activity. What is meaningful? The answer to that question is personal and profound. I am often struck by the intelligence and zeal that some "unskilled workers" bring to what they do. One example in my neighbourhood is the radiant petrol attendant David, pictured right, whose professionalism, dedication, integrity and genuine kindness would be an asset at any level of any organization. His work is meaningful because he makes it so. 

But there is another kind of work: the "daily grind" that societal structure requires in exchange for the currency that is said to make the world go round. Work, in this case, does not necessarily have meaning. It does not necessarily involve scope for initiative, and performance (which tends to be mediocre at best) is driven by punishment rather than intrinsic reward. Maintaining acceptable levels of mediocrity is rewarded extrinsically with a pay cheque. Even in a world where MBAs are as common as weeds, this Working Dead model still persists. In fact, it has undergone a renaissance since the advent of call centres. And, if I may risk the pun, it simply doesn't work. 

Defining Ethic
The most suitable definition of ethic in the context of work is that of a guiding philosophy. When it comes to work ethic, the fundamental question would be: 

What is my guiding philosophy about work? 

Then again, the entire implication of work ethic is that work is unpleasant. Why would anyone need to be ethical about something they simply loved doing?

Work Ethic that Works
I don't have a final answer on the problems of the unpleasant work that needs doing in this world, or the masses of people who claim they need jobs. There are, however, three sources that offer interesting perspectives on how work ethic can be fostered from within. 

The Play Ethic is musician-author Pat Kane's "Manifesto for a Different Way of Living". Kane takes play seriously: seriously enough to have devoted this tome and a second career to its study. The book is no light read, but a delightful shift in perspective on play as meaningful and productive - remarkably similar to my earlier definition of work

Philosopher Alan Watts investigated the nature of work with a rare and courageous perspicacity. His  thought-provoking lecture What if Money Was No Object lays the deadening paradox of working for money bare, and has become vastly popular online. In it he even constructs a logical explanation why choosing an occupation that brings you joy has the potential to be more profitable than anything else - but of course, profit is not the object of the game. It is simply a side effect. 

The Venus Project, a radical proposal for a functional society, offers yet another perspective. In the organic sci-fi cities proposed by founder Jacque Fresco there is would be very little "work" to do. Scientific knowledge and intelligent design would take care of most of the nitty-gritty, while many of the profitable industries of today would be obsolete. Without poverty, disease, dishonesty and inefficiency (not to mention the monetary system), what demand would one supply? Even if this concept calls for some suspension of disbelief, it is worth considering how one would pass one's time in a world like that. 

These three bold perspectives may run wildly contrary to societal values, and of course many whip-cracking bosses and listless employees will dismiss them as idealistic. Idealistic they may be, but are they any less realistic than the model of grudgingly working (or even being exploited) only for money and out of fear of punishment? In the final analysis, true work ethic cannot be forced on anyone, but grows out of a sense of meaning. It simply is an inside job. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Punchline: How Humour Makes Learning Happen

The Proof is in the Punchline
Three weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Gavin Sharples, self-described Action Man of motivational speaking and business training, hosted by the South African National Small Business Chamber (NSBC). That would not be so remarkable, except that today, three weeks later, the concepts he introduced are crystal clear in my mind. What is more, I have been acting on them. That, ladies, gentlemen and idle hangers-on, is what is remarkable. While Sharples uses a bundle of techniques to make learning stick, the most powerful is a lightning-fast, razor-sharp (and somewhat devillish) sense of humour. 

Image: The Book Depository

Scholarly Support for Learning with Humour
The pedigree of studies investigating humour in learning goes back some time. The more recent Using Humour to Maximize Learning: The Links between Positive Emotions and Education by Mary Kay Morrison not only gathers the findings, but offers practical guidelines. According to Morrison, humour benefits learning in the following ways (summary via
  • Humour contributes to mind/body balance, especially through the physical effects of laughter
  • Humour optimizes brain power by focusing attention
  • Humour enhances creativity by creating unlikely connections and giving fresh perspective
  • Humour supports the change process by opening minds to new possibilities
  • Ultimately, humour is both a cause and symptom of an ideal learning environment
The American Psychological Association, too, has devoted the pages of its prestigious journal to discover How Laughing Leads to Learning. Meanwhile, in the controversial, virtual halls of online learning, humour has been found to be a powerful antidote to the common ailment of online learner attrition in a Science Daily article

The Formula for Funny?
Humour can, of course, be a minefield, and treading on anyone's toes is never funny. Some of the most hilarious moments happen unexpectedly, and cannot be contrived. However, the Information Age does generously provide for the humorously impaired. In the rib-tickling film Keeping Mum (2005) a priest played masterfully by Rowan Atkinson scours the Web to find jokes that bring the parish salvation from his formerly dull sermons. But humour and fun are more than just verbal jokes, as the great online resource for lightening up public speaking and training at demonstrates so well. 

A formula for humour is a bit of a paradox, since humour at its best sprouts organically in the unscripted, the unexpected and the unformulaic. The best we can do is to take ourselves lightly and be ready to see things from a fresh perspective.

That would be the punchline, except that it isn't a straight line: it's an ongoing learning curve. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Joy of Not Working?

It is surprising how difficult it is to explain to people that I don't work. So difficult, in fact, that I have recently been in danger of a minor identity crisis resulting from the casual question, "Oh, so what do you do?". The socially acceptable answer begins with the words "I am a ...". It is an answer that I do not have at the moment. Even by training I am a professional schizophrenic impulse-driven vagabond. And so, who, exactly, am I? 

(Let the record show, at this point, that although I am not employed, I actually do work. Hard and happily. More productively and more significantly than many employees. However, I do not have an employer, and do not receive a salary. I am very grateful that this is an option I am free to consider.)

Image: via Ernie Zelinksi
Enter The Joy of Not Working by another professional vagabond, Ernie J. Zelinski. If ever there was a book that shuffled my social programming about the iconic Job, this is it. I picked up the book as a sly indulgence in a second-hand bookstore, but a few chapters into the furtive read, my attitudes towards employment and the work ethic were transformed. Yes, I even stopped hiding the cover when reading in public. Although Zelinski's own implementation of his philosophy may be a bit extreme (he exercises for two hours a day and is a bit more frugal than my accessory fetish would allow), his argument is compelling. It turns out that what he is opposed to is not work, but the societal pressure, materialistic drives and individual lack of imagination that keeps people trapped for long hours in jobs that do not fulfil them. When you think about it, it makes sense. 

The Joy of Not Working is written "for the retired, unemployed and overworked", and though I don't really fit into any of these categories, the book not only restored my dignity but reminded me how fortunate I am to have a respite from the pressure, rush and powerlessness of employment. In fact, it opened my mind to start actively pursuing long-term alternatives to formal employment - while enjoying the situation I am in now for what it is. 

Anyone who has left the workforce - especially without the intention - can benefit tremendously from a reading and re-reading of this book. But the people who need The Joy of Not Working most are the overworked - if only they will make the time!

"If work were so pleasant the rich would keep it to themselves." 
- Mark Twain

Curious? Get The Joy of Not Working at The Book Depository and enjoy free delivery on all books. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Saving Grace

Money, as the Beatles argued, can't buy me love. But though I'm not the type to argue that money makes the world go round, there is no denying that in this material word it can make things happen. That is its charm: I'm not all that interested in money, but I do like what it makes possible. (Incidentally I believe true wealth is the growing of fruit trees.) Which is why I get a bigger kick out of investing than I do out of - gasp! - shopping. Here's why. 

The Windfall
A few years ago, I received an unexpected windfall . My grandfather had decided that rather than endowing money to his grandchildren in his will, he would give each of us a fixed amount on his 87th birthday. Of course, each of us saw the windfall in our own way. Some welcomed the extra cash for existing commitments, others used it to supplement their student wages, one took an unforgettable trip... and I was lucky (or boring) enough not to have any urgent need for the money. I asked my grandfather how he would advise that I invest this windfall. He recommended national bonds, which offered an exceptional interest rate of 9.5% per year at the time. Not knowing what else to do, I followed his advice. 

 The Wait
The dangerous beauty of compound interest is that it takes a while to show its true potential. After one year I felt a bit discouraged to see that my R10,000 had increased to only R10,950. Where's the fun in that, after all? I hardly felt like the next Warren Buffet. 

Feeling somewhat disheartened, I didn't give the investment much thought until it matured after three years. By this time my grandfather had passed away, and reopening that investment statement was quite a poignant experience. He had left me more than a gift of money: he had shared a legacy of mastering it. To my surprise I found that my little windfall had fattened up to almost R13,000 - an increase of near 30% of the initial investment. Given the option to cash out or reinvest, I had no doubts about the next step: I was hooked. 

The Winning
Thirsty for more, I reinvested for another two years. This means that I will have parted with the initial amount for five years. The graph on the right shows how by that time the investment will have grown to more than R16,000, increasing its value by more than half. While it is true that this does not account for inflation, it is certainly a whole lot better than what the money would have done in the bank, under the bed or, worst of all, burning a hole in my pocket at the mall. Most importantly, it is massively empowering to think that rather than being the one paying the interest, I am the one receiving it. 

The Wobbly Bit
As I mentioned earlier, I really do believe that true wealth means growing fruit trees. Seriously. Fruit trees give food, shade, oxygen, beauty and joy. Thing is, very few travel agents, clothing stores or restaurants accept even the most luscious fruit in exchange for their goods and services. Money does have a sordid side,  and it may well be that its days are numbered. Yet in the end there is little more sordid than being disempowered by the lack of money. It simply is more fun to be raking in interest than paying it. 

The Word to the Wise
I will not preach. That said, it is extremely inspiring (or sobering, for anyone with debt!) to play around with a compound interest calculator like the one at The calculator shows exactly how once-off or repeated investments grow, and provides graphs like the one in this post to drive the message home. (Yes, there is also a credit card interest function for those who are contemplating going to the dark side.) No, I need not preach. But it certainly isn't a bad idea to play around with a compound interest calculator. And then take action. 

Honestly, it beats shopping.