Wednesday, March 17, 2010


By Darrell James

This years event charity at Left Coast Crime Writer’s Conference was The Los Angeles Library Foundation. One of the most inspirational moments for me, came during the Saturday night banquet, when Penny Mickelbury, the Literacy Coordiator for the Library Foundation, gave a passionate introduction to the problem of illiteracy. It’s been on my mind ever since. In particular:

What would life have been like for me had I not the ability to read?

For starters, there’s the obvious. I would not have enjoyed the benefits of a comfortable living, and an interesting career in automation technology. There would have been no high school diploma, no college degree. I would have likely never owned a home. Maybe never driven a car. And, I’m quite sure, my lovely (and extremely literate) wife Diana would have looked the other way on our first meeting. It chills the mind to think about it.

But, given all these career and social differences, there would have been one other dramatic void in my life… the ability to enjoy a book.

I suspect I was reading at a fairly average age of six or seven maybe. I was the youngest in the family by a gap of quite a few years between me and my older siblings. While they read their books, I thrilled to the adventures of my favorite comic book characters: Superman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, even Little Lulu. And, I hungered for more.

My sisters brought home real books. Big, thick, leather-bound tombs that, for me, held unimaginable secrets. I would steal them and covertly slip through the pages. Gone With The Wind, The Great Gatsby, Little Women….

These books… these stories and their characters… live with me today. They come to me as fond recollections, offer solace, peace and sometimes advice. They are part of who I am and what I have become—a writer. I cannot imagine, not of a single moment, a life without books.

The statistics are sobering:

- 774 million people around the world are illiterate in their native languages. Two thirds of these are women.

- In the U.S. alone 30 million people over the age of 16 (14%of the adult population) can’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story or fill out a job application.

The socio-economic impact is massive. Illiteracy can be linked to gender abuse, infant mortality, the spread of social diseases, and crime. More than 60% of all state and federal correctional inmates can barely read or write.

How is it possible—in a world where scientists routinely probe space, calculate the depths of our universe, and bio chemists take us into the micro-molecular world of our own DNA—that society as a whole can be so poorly prepared for life?

My first reaction is anger. Then sadness…

For those told millions will never thrill to Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, or take a journey along Huck Finn’s Mississippi. (How terribly wrong.)

Can anything be done?

I suppose the answer lies in a million points of light (as has been so provocatively stated) But, I believe, as writers and sometimes educators, we have a unique position of influence. Perhaps, even, a unique position of responsibility: to advocate for change at every opportunity.
I for one plan to make the issue a part of every panel discussion and book event I do.
What about you?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I ran into an adult just recently who couldn't read...and I was completely shocked, which I shouldn't have been. I now know that illiteracy is a huge problem--and frequently due to problems like dyslexia.

I have a friend who volunteers with a literacy program which I'd also like to do when I'm done with my school volunteering w/ my children.

Mystery Writing is Murder

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Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Darrell. Penny's speech Saturday night was very inspiring. I take for granted that I can read. I can't imagine what it would be like to look at a page and only see gobblygook. And, like Elizabeth, I'm always shocked when I encounter someone who can't read. It's easy to forget that not everyone enjoys this very basic tool.

Lisa Bork said...

I volunteer for a program that asks adults to read with city school children. I think the roots of reading must be planted at home, as well as emphasis and value on education. Sadly, it's obvious that's not happening.

G.M. Malliet said...

Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol: This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

JournoMich said...

It is still amazing to me that illiteracy is so far-reaching. I suppose I am insulated in my privileged world. Which means I have a lot more to give than I actually give! And you have reminded me of that. Thank you.

As for me, a world without books, without the Internet, without subtitled movies would be quiet. I know that doesn't make sense, but the knowledge bouncing around in my head is friendly, and I get that mostly from reading.


GBPool said...

I give books and art supplies to the young children of my neighbors and to my great nieces and nephews for Christmas, just a subtle way to encourage them to read and learn to draw. Some schools let people sponsor a classroom by giving them a box of art supplies. Add a book or two. There are lots of ways to educate kids. It usually requires just doing something simple.

Loni Emmert said...

It is very sad indeed that we take our ability - and opportunity - to read for granted. I try to encourage my nieces and nephews to read but, sadly, some of them don't enjoy it. I hope they grow out of that "we're too cool" teenage phase, although thanks to the "Twilight" series my oldest niece did read them - the first book series she wanted to read. I'll take that as a start!

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine a world without reading. I was also very grateful for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS)when my mother developed macular degeneration. She'd always been a reader & books on tape helped her maintain that. Lots of good books.
I read all the time. My husband reads mostly magazines & the newspaper, but our daughters, now grown, are book & poetry lovers as well as writers (mostly for their own selves). The grandsons are also big readers.

Deborah Sharp said...

Thoughtful post, Darrell, but you're preaching to the choir here as we're all committed readers (and writers, many of us). The question is how to reach those who DON'T think of the lack of literacy as that much of problem. Sad, isn't it?