HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 3, 2007, Herald Journal

Literacy is a beginning, not an end

By IVAN RACONTEUR

Literacy is a big deal for writers. If it weren’t for literate people, there would be no one to read what we write, and this could prove detrimental to the old job security.

For this reason, days like International Literacy Day, which comes up again this Saturday, Sept. 8, may have more significance for writers than for the average person.

The fact remains, however, that literacy, or the lack thereof, affects us all.

It is obvious that anyone who reads this column is both literate and demonstrates excellent taste in reading materials.

There are, however, people who find reading and writing to be a challenge.

Why is this important?

Those who study literacy tend to bandy about all sorts of arcane and sometimes alarming statistics about reading levels, and the connections between illiteracy and crime, prison sentences, and dependence on welfare.

There are also studies that link improved literacy to higher potential incomes and better health.

While it is difficult to find consensus among the numbers, there seems to be broad agreement that illiteracy contributes to crime and costs us money, while improved literacy increases opportunities for those involved and saves money for all of us.

Literacy is not a simple matter of whether or not one can read and write. There are levels of literacy.

For example, a person may be able to read at a basic level, but if he is not able to read and understand instructions, he might find it difficult to secure employment.

As the job market evolves and becomes more complex, employees will need to be able to read and understand information from a variety of sources.

Outside of the workplace, the ability to read things such as labels on medications could be a matter of life or death.

Many people read instructions only as a last resort, but it is sometimes unavoidable.

In order to make good buying decisions, consumers need to be able to read package labels.

If it is to succeed, a democratic society depends on citizens who are well-informed.

All of these things require some degree of literacy, and yet, many people in this country lack basic reading skills.

So, what can be done about it?

One of the most critical factors when it comes to developing reading skills is access to printed materials.

There is no reason that anyone should be deprived of books and other materials. Income (or lack thereof) is not an excuse.

One way we can ensure the continued availability of these materials for all Americans is to support our public libraries.

Governments can provide leadership by focusing on libraries rather than sports stadiums.

Both have their place, but anyone who has listened to interviews with professional athletes lately will realize that expensive stadiums definitely do not help further the cause of literacy.

Libraries are a good investment, and can actually save money for society by helping to reduce crime.

Minneapolis Public Library Director Kit Hadley said that one of the most basic actions that citizens can take to reduce crime is to make sure that parents and children have library cards. The library and the Minneapolis Police Department have joined forces in a program to accomplish this goal.

Ideally, reading should start at a very young age. Parents who read to their children on a daily basis can help to set them up for a lifetime of learning. Sharing a book with a child, rather than parking him in front of the television, can make a world of difference.

Reading can be habit forming. In the rare occasions when I find myself trapped in a situation with a few minutes to spare and no book in sight, I tend to read whatever I can get my hands on.

I have discovered that there is a wealth of information available on the back of breakfast cereal packets and snack bags.

I have scoured hotel lobbies for brochures on local attractions, and I have even read government-issued propaganda posters in employee break rooms.

The point is, if one can read, the world is a garden filled with opportunities for learning and entertainment. For those who can’t read, the world must be a series of closed doors.

It is a cultural tragedy that 25 percent of Americans didn’t read a single book in the past year.

Of those who did read books, the average number was four (in contrast, some of us read that many books at a time).

As dismal as things are, there are signs of hope. The Harry Potter series has ushered in a cult-like fascination with reading for children and adults alike. It remains to be seen if this will translate into increased reading in other categories, but if a person can sit down and read several hundred pages about a boy wizard in a single weekend, it proves that he at least has the ability to read if he wants to.

I suspect that some of those that don’t read books are a bit like some of the people with whom I went to school.

They looked forward to graduation, they said, because after that, they would never have to read another book.

These people have my sympathy.

Books can expose us to all of the ideas, hopes, and dreams of mankind, and can transport us to places we would otherwise never see.

A book is the least expensive vacation one can take, but people who don’t read will never experience this.

Learning is not an assignment. It doesn’t end when the class bell rings. It is a journey that lasts a lifetime.

One does not have to read to learn, but one cannot read without learning.

For those who struggle with literacy, there is hope. There are numerous programs available to help people improve their reading and writing skills.

Learning to read may not be easy for some, but the rewards are great.

A literate life will be easier and infinitely richer than one that is not.