I can’t imagine growing up without books, can you? Every writer has a story about books, how they came to love the written word. Sometimes there’s a background of a highly literate family to initiate, encourage and support that love, and sometimes not. Money sometimes has something to do with it, sometimes not. My dad left school at the age of twelve and never went back – he was plucked (“requisitioned” might be a better word) from the classroom at the outset of the Second World War because he was the fastest runner in the school, and boys with that sort of talent were needed by the Air Raid Patrol to carry messages between different posts while bombs were dropping. Dad ran his way through the London Blitz before sprinting off to the country to work on a farm. He’s a voracious reader, loves westerns, books on astronomy and thinks his lifetime subscription to National Geographic is the best gift I ever gave him. He is a self-educated man and he loves books.
My mother was one of ten kids, left school at fourteen, but her mother insisted that each of her children obtain a library membership as soon as they were old enough (she read a book a day, despite being partially blind and having those ten kids) and if they didn’t have a job to do around the house, then they had better have their nose in a book. They’re all big readers – and they don’t hold back with their comments either, let me tell you from personal experience. I think my cousins and I all had library cards almost as soon as we could walk. As my Dad knew already, you can escape from hell in a book, and you can open up the world, whether that world is another country, an emotion, a new perspective, or simply a place to while away the time.
But what if you can’t read? Or if you don’t have access to books, or didn’t ever learn to love them? I can accept – just (sort of ... maybe) – the latter, but not the two in the middle.
One more story, then I’ll get to the point.
At the end of 1999, Peter Jennings, together with his co-author, Todd Brewster, came to Book Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera, CA – one of the best bookstores in the world – to talk about their new book, The Century. They could have gone to many bookstores in the area, but what drew them to Book Passage was the fact that the store has a program of philanthropy to support literacy, and a percentage of the profits were going directly to local efforts to bring reading to those who would not otherwise have such an opportunity. Peter Jennings began his talk by asking us to imagine a parent, perhaps a recent immigrant to the country, perhaps someone who dropped out of school, who has taken a sick child to the doctor. The doctor gives a prescription, the parent collects the medication. But the parent can’t read the instructions. (Forget that in recent years pharmacies have provided bi-lingual staff). How does it feel not to know what to do because you cannot read or make sense of the instructions? And what if you have been intimidated because you cannot speak the language, or you cannot afford a doctor, so you just go to the pharmacy to buy something over the counter – what do you do if you cannot read? Never mind War & Peace, that's life and death, sickness and health - and it's all down to literacy.
For my part, I have always wondered about the frustration if you cannot distinguish thoughts, feelings and ideas without distinction. “Sad” just becomes, well, “sad” instead of, say, “bereft”, “wretched” or "melancholy." The way kids are losing vocabulary at the moment, everything will be whittled down to “stuff” – as in (and I’m quoting two recently overhead adult conversations):
What did you do at the weekend?
Oh, you know, stuff
What do you think?
Lots of stuff, you know, coming up.
And as for that broader understanding of the world – heck, you’ve got to start somewhere, and a book provides that starting place. Which is why I was delighted and honored to be asked to contribute to The Book That Changed My Life, edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen. You may know of Roxanne, owner of another great bookstore, RJ Julia of Madison, Connecticut. As Roxanne has said of the book, which is garnering starred reviews all over the place (and that sort of stuff ...), “Not only does this wonderful book remind readers of all the ways books can change lives, not only does it give readers a new and exciting reading list, but it also gives us the opportunity to give a portion of the proceeds to the Read To Grow Foundation ... an organization dedicated to providing the books and resources that every child and their family needs to become literate and learn to love reading – because everyone should have the opportunity to find the books that will change their life.”
I’m telling everyone I can about the book, because even though this program is essentially for one state, it will hopefully draw attention to similar programs in other regions, and to the challenges of illiteracy. As writers and readers, we owe it to ourselves and our future to facilitate reading. Reading opens the mind, and we all know what happens to a country when minds begin to close, don’t we?
Here’s the link. Now go to an independent bookstore, preferably one that supports local literacy programs, and buy this book.
Have a lovely weekend, sink into your favorite armchair with a beverage of your choice at your side, and find out about the book that changed the life of Dorothy Allison, or Dominic Dunne, perhaps Kate Atkinson, or Amy Bloom. Sebastian Junger remembers a book that changed his life, so does Anne Lamott. Frank McCourt, Ian Rankin, Anne Perry – every single one of them can point to a book that changed their life. Me too – I’m right at the end, being a “W.”
PS: And thank you all for your congratulatory messages about the Macavity Award. Amazing what can happen, eventually, down the line a few decades, when you let a kid into a library and get them excited about words and letters, phrases and even whole books ....