When I traveled in India many years ago, a speaker told us if his country could reach 50 percent literacy they would have achieved a huge goal. Women, mothers, were the key. Imagine a society where the majority of children leave school after the first grade to help support the family, who never have the opportunity to learn to read or write.
The middle of April will be National Library Week. Not a big deal to most of the world, except for the millions of people who have no books, who cannot read nor write, who do not know what a library, as an institution of an educated society, even is. Time and again history has shown us that an illiterate and uneducated populace is quick to fall victim to any passing person who promises ‘bread and circuses’ to keep them fed and entertained.
Is that what has been happening in our own country in recent years? This is all the more sad because we are supposedly educated. We have all manner of books available to us in a variety of forms (i.e., Kindles, Nooks, etc.). But still we have people who choose not to read, who refuse the gift they have been given, who live only in the reality of the moment and for whom history and all its lessons are not worth the consideration of a modern, technological age.
Besides reading there must be access to information. “The true university of the people is the library”. Libraries recognize the playing field needs to be leveled so that everyone, regardless of economic means, has access to the same information. Information should not be limited to those who can afford to pay. Julius Caesar had a library for the people and the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, which was destroyed by vandals and fire contained all the knowledge humanity had acquired to that time. For centuries of history the value of reading and access to books has been immeasurable.
We all know the stories of Abraham Lincoln who walked miles to borrow a book. The image of our founding leaders were men and women who read. In the South, during the days of slavery, it was a crime to teach a slave to read and write. Yet there were slave owners who broke that law, so important did they believe reading and writing were to people. When the Civil War ended the very first institutions established were schools and colleges for the education of former slaves. There was a hunger to learn, to know. Schools were the first institutions established on the frontier.
My mother, a rural school teacher, talked about the boxes of books that were rotated to the schools from the county superintendent’s office. It was like Christmas when the new books came, children grabbing something new to take home and read. Remember when we had to write book reports in school? It was a terrible assignment for many, but teachers knew the importance of books and reading to developing the minds of the children.
These days we have a leader who says “I don’t read.” But then sadly, he is not alone. Reading is a deliberate act. Reading is a discipline that requires practice. You won’t read if you don’t read, even if it is the cereal box on the table in the morning. Reading is a gift: to be able to immerse yourself in other times and places; to share the ideas of philosophers and politicians and those first-hand accounts of people who have done great things. I have often said I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if I had not had books to read. And my greatest fear is to be without a book at hand (or two or three).
People with learning disabilities, people who are illiterate, live in the shadows of our society. This year let us, as an informed populace who really understands the importance of access to books and information, celebrate National Library Week in ways that make a difference: make a gift to your local library; read a book to a child or better yet, listen to a child practice their reading; then let your children see you reading a book — history, politics, or plain old escapism. The joy of reading, the skill of reading, the inner fire that burns in each of us to know more should never be dimmed because of a lack of access to reading material.
(On a personal note: What is in the stack of books by your favorite chair? I recently finished my second reading of “The Monuments Men”. What a great true mystery story that highlights the importance to our civilization of art, sculpture and books. I am now starting a biography of Red Cloud, the Sioux Indian chief who kept the U.S. military at bay by uniting a variety of tribes and fighting all across the Great Plains, blocking the Bozeman Trail. In-between times I am reading a great biography by N.T. Wright on the Apostle Paul. I recently finished and already gave away “The Preacher” by Camilla Lackland, a Swedish mystery writer. But not before I had read late into the night to find out ‘whodunit’.)