So like most writers, I regard illiteracy as a terrifying trap. The definitions of illiteracy are many. The CIA World Factbook tracks literacy rates, and the US ranks high. Yet other assessments suggest that at least one out of six Americans, maybe more, has minimal literacy. Whether they can read only a little or not at all, many adults devote considerable effort into hiding this deficit.
At first, strong readers might shrug, feeling relief it’s not their child. But it’s a mistake to think we can glide through modern life unaffected by others’ struggles with literacy. Consider the manufacturing employee who can’t read warnings on labels, mixing the wrong chemicals and releasing a gas that injures co-workers or home health aides earning minimum wage who can’t follow directions on medication packages or equipment. Too many legislators and citizens don’t read bills before the votes are cast. And then there was the subprime mortgage debacle, with thousands of homebuyers trusting loan officers on unrealistic and unaffordable terms, signing toxic contracts that eventually threatened the global economy.
No agency keeps tabs on mistakes linked to illiteracy, yet one estimate suggests the problem costs the US economy about $225 billion per year. And literacy is linked to security The US military has promoted literacy since the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington directed military chaplains to teach soldiers reading and other basic skills. Reading and writing, early steps to seducing the hearts and minds of others through the arts, are tools of power, suggests Robert Greene in The 48 Laws of Power, a book purchased by my son before he attended high school and since abandoned to my basement bookshelves. Those who belittle education and reading would deny others power.
Some illiterate adults have grown up in families and communities that devalue and resent education, trapping generation after generation. Some students were bullied into rejecting reading, and others do the bullying themselves. Some grow up feeling alone and stupid only to discover a learning disability long after school years have ended. Others know that seeking help as an adult takes courage and fiercely rally their children and grandchildren to read and avoid a humiliation that’s so often a motivation for violence.
Not long after reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker, I responded to a local literacy organization’s call for volunteers. Dozens of adults were waiting for individual tutors in the small town, and the program was unusual in that volunteers didn’t need special credentials. Instead, we were encouraged to create a safe starting point for raising awareness and encouraging clients to enter more formal literacy classes and GED programs. In a small town, these illiterate adults refused to join others in a classroom and divulge their secrets. Gossip was rampant, and as a reporter for the daily newspaper, I was a major purveyor. The director emphasized confidentiality.
My first student, a laborer at a seafood plant, refused to meet anywhere but his kitchen and only when his family wasn’t at home. My second student was a prominent businessman. He agreed to meet in the public library after developing an elaborate story about hiring me for a writing project. These men were ashamed, skilled at dodging any scenario or questions about anything associated with the written word.
Those who can’t share our passion for reading are vulnerable, accustomed to a life of heartbreak and confusion. Poverty, lay-off notices, foreclosures, divorce, illness or arrests often derail plans for adult learners. The program’s director had many resources, but encouraged us to build trust and develop strategies for clients to pursue, preparing them if our meetings were to end abruptly.
Every life is a story, and yet, suggested Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject if he has no hand to paint them to the senses.” Reading and writing help us craft better lives. Catching up with reading as an adult is grueling and time-consuming. Many spend their lives hiding desires and talent or risk teasing or bullying – another side to this story. Secrets about an activity taken for granted by so many – reading – can be a matter of life and death in other parts of the world and in some communities of the United States.
So let me ask, fellow readers, has there been a time when you felt compelled to keep your own reading a secret?
ROSEMARY: Susan's novel,Fear of Beauty (which i was lucky enough to get an advance copy of!) is a story of a woman in rural Afghanistan desperate to learn how to read after her son’s battered body is found at the base of a nearby cliff on the day he was supposed to leave for school. Most villagers blame an accidental fall. Others wonder if US troops and aid workers at a nearby outpost should be blamed. Defying all odds and taking advantage of war’s chaos, Sofi finds a teacher and discovers the truth behind her son’s death and extremists’ real purpose in her village. And JR readers, Susan and her publisher, Prometheus Books, are giving away a copy of Fear of Beauty to one lucky commenter today. Stop by and say hello!
Susan Froetschel taught writing at Yale University and magazine writing and literacy journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. She’s now consulting editor for YaleGlobal, an online magazine that explores the global connections of all types. Fear of Beauty is a culmination of years of volunteering in reading programs and imagining growing up in a community without books.