Computers have been around since the early 80s, and we have had at least one in the house since ’88. So what is that, coming on 25 years? And in all that time I have never had a computer that I was operating get eaten by a virus. But I did yesterday and I tell you that was a humbling experience.

For all that I use computers almost every waking moment to do my job, I cheerfully admit that I do not know much about the inner workings of them. Perhaps that – and my own innate careful nature – is why I have never been much on taking risks in downloading material or even going to questionable sites. My eldest son, who lives on the edge of technology staring into its vast unfathomable depths for a living, has burned at least a half dozen computer guts that I know about. He wisely doesn’t tell me everything, so the body count is probably a lot higher. But I just had my technological cherry popped, and I am feeling a little chastened.

In my own defence I would mention that is was for the greater good of education. Of course anyone in my position would say that, but I would say that in my case, my argument is justified. My argument runs like this:

I am really, really tired of my students doing their year-end novel study by reading the literature of Dead White (Western) Males, so tired that three years ago I completely revamped the required reading list to include Asian, Latin American and African writers. Despite my efforts, and some increase in the study of world literature, students were still stuck on European writers. I wasn’t getting the results I was looking for. Two years ago I took an IB (International Baccalaureate) course in English and came across their English materials. When a colleague left our program to go to the IB program a year ago I got her to forward me the IB writer’s list, which is truly international in scope.

This semester I implemented the IB list of authors. No one could read outside the list, and they had to show a connectedness between their two novels. As a result I got some truly awesome choices, representing the best of modern international writers. However, this presented the problem of obtaining these books in a culture that practices print censorship and where there are NO public libraries.

This drove me online to find suitable eBook sites. Gutenberg was obviously the first stop. Unfortunately Gutenberg specializes in Dead White Guys. Jsoft eBooks was a good and safe find, offering a limited choice of writers in text files. Other sites were not so promising. Investigating some of these sites is how I probably picked up a virus. However, on my Kindle I can get practically anything almost instantly and at a relatively low cost. But Amazon uses a DRM (digital rights management) format called .azw which can’t be converted using the regular tools. This drove me to Calibre (Thanks Dave!), a free software download (make a donation, it is an awesome product) developed by Kovid Goyal of Mombai. Calibre will convert any ebook format to any other, a very useful tool. But it can’t unlock DRMs, so I needed another program.

A colleague (Thanks Aaron!) suggested I try eBook Converter, a relatively (at $34 US) expensive product that simply unlocks the DRMs by finding the file in your Kindle. Between these two products I have managed to assist my students to get practically every book their newly released imagination has come up with. My own industry and drive has motivated most of them to derive their own eBook solutions. This is an exciting step forward for me and this program. However, there have been costs.

There is always a learning curve with new knowledge, and the cost of my learning how to do all this yesterday was a virus that I had picked up during all this searching that ate my computer, all of its files and all of its programs. Well, so what! No advance comes without setbacks, and I am determined to get my students out of the cultural imperialism that says that the only literature worth studying comes from Western Europe. That is limiting and insulting to the vast panoply of cultures and writers in the world. As for my computer, I had it backed up on a hard drive and the reboot at the shop cost only 50 ringgit ($15) in this tech-savvy country.

I always encourage my students to go to the edge of what they don’t know and jump in. I have always tried to model that myself. I stripped a 550 BSA motorbike to its roots one long winter just to prove to myself that I could. I wooed my wife by restoring an MGB in her parent’s driveway. I have renovated three houses from the studs on out. In none of these things did I have the slightest notion of what I was doing when I started. But in every case I succeeded in doing what I set out to do, and in every case I made a good return on my investment. My return on this investment will be some essays worth writing on some books well worth reading; that, and perhaps some students with a new sense of the value of their own initiative.

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