The Joy of Literacy

by kipress

I was sitting in my History of Publishing class while a woman gave a presentation on the history of literacy. The class was restless and confused. The presenter's visual aid–likely an overhead transparency–made no sense. The chart clearly depicted literacy steadily, and sometimes dramatically, decreasing over the ages.

Finally, someone asked a question. Was the chart accurate? Was she using some definition of literacy, some particular shade thereof, that we didn't know about?

She turned around and looked at her chart for a moment, then laughed. “Literacy, illiteracy–I always get those two things mixed up!”

Today is International Literacy Day. (Or, it was — I started writing this earlier, and then someone got up from her nap time.) Literacy is considered a human right, and as with all rights, I exhort us all to exercise it, and treat it with respect.

As I'll tell anyone who will listen, my daughter started reading this summer. This has probably been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I don't feel that my life is short on joy. Shortly after she was born, the health unit nurse dropped off the official provincial new-baby care package, which included a board book and a brochure extolling the virtues of reading to my child.

The Manitoba Government hardly needed to tell me that, but it's moments like that when my own privilege, and the privilege that my daughter grows up with every day, smacks me. It makes me sad that instructions must be given about reading to children. I know why, or think I do — inequality, historical and continued, that has affected and still affects access to education, of both formal and informal varieties.

My mother grew up in a remote, post-war farming community. Her father, typical of someone from his place and time, went to school up to grade eight. After grade eight, even if you weren't needed on the farm or in the house, there was no where else to go to school unless you wanted to be a priest. But he loved reading, and when the encyclopedia salesman came by, he bought the set. The neighbours considered this a wasteful extravagance–and it was extravagant. Encyclopedias had to be purchased on installment plans.

But my grandfather knew what he was doing. There weren't so many books available in that time and place. My mother read that set of encyclopedias cover to cover.

Where I grew up, the only bookstore in town was a Christian one, and as a Roman Catholic, it was not somewhere I could frequent (Catholics and Protestants didn't mix in THAT time and place). We'd buy books when we went to the bigger town down the highway, but often I just read what was available. My mother was doing her degree by distance ed, and had a stack of university English textbooks purchased through the mail — that's how I read Margaret Laurence. And the entire Norton Anthology of Poetry. At the town library, I rummaged around and tried something from every genre — I remember The Guns of Navarone. And a schlocky Judith Krantz novel containing some lesbian sex scenes that left me mildly alarmed. (Until then, homosexuality had been invisible to me. Time. Place. Roman Catholic.)

Even I am daunted by the absolute glut of reading material available now. And I'm not even talking about on-line–just regular old books are available to me in quantities that I would never have imagined growing up in a remote rural setting. For a long while, later, I didn't like to use the library because I wanted to own the books (and to write in the margins–yes, I'm a book-defacer). I wanted them to always be there. They made me feel comfortable and safe.

I've gotten over that now. In the past ten years at my house we've had to give away a thousand books, easily, simply because we don't have room for them all. (I'm sure we have at least a thousand more–and that's nothing compared to many book collectors we know.) Watching, and helping, my daughter learn to read makes me feel guilty for becoming complacent about reading. That's perhaps an irrational thought for someone who teaches writing skills every day, but I'm talking more about my own reading, and my own writing, which have dwindled more and more as I've entered those career/motherhood simultaneous crunch years that everyone's been talking about and turn out to be totally real.

Hard work certainly helps, but if you want to learn to write well, almost nothing, I believe, can substitute for a lifetime of reading. And so I feel pangs of something complicated–joy, regret about my own failings, excitement and trepidation about all the wonders that await–as I explain silent letters to a three-year-old (damn you, English!). I don't feel such essential pangs when I teach at college (sorry), probably because the students are not my offspring. But also because I don't have to give my daughter a grade. She is learning to read because it is simply essential to her–she has spent her whole life watching her parents read, and write, and must do the same.