I grew up in a middle-class family in rural upstate New York. We had a mortgage and a car loan, and my brother and I wore hand-me-downs. It was a nice, ordinary American upbringing: quietly blessed, reassuringly average, except for one thing: in books, I have always been rich.
My earliest memories are of books, the crammed shelves a backdrop for birthday parties, family dinners, and Saturday morning cartoons. We read every night, my brother and I perched on my dad’s lap, Goodnight Moon open before us, or Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. When we got older, my mom dug through her old boxes of books from when she was a girl, rediscovering along with us Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. At summer camp, I traded books with my friends, devouring with illicit pleasure the likes of The Baby-Sitters Club series, Tiger Eyes, and Izzy, Willy-Nilly — books my small town library didn’t own. These books taught me to have crushes, do my nails, and flirt. They informed me about sex and my body, and probably empowered me to make smart choices about those things throughout my life.
From my parents’ shelves, I drew down books I probably wasn’t ready for, but no one ever told me to put a book back. From dog-eared, underlined college textbooks, I learned about extreme poverty and AIDS, the Holocaust and cancer, war and rape. I read Stephen King, which kept me up at night for years. In perusing those adult shelves, I learned an expensive lesson: nothing I read could ever be unread. Still, I wouldn’t trade those books — each one of them — for anything. To me, books were the world, transported to my teenage bedroom in my tiny upstate town.
Growing up, I never stopped to notice who was and wasn’t reading. I didn’t yet understand what books represented — privilege, education, even wealth, relatively speaking. Reading is a leisure activity, a luxury, and it demands time. I travelled abroad after graduating from college, and backpacking through Asia, I was mostly — embarrassingly, now — amused at the illiteracy I encountered. From Laos to India, I took pictures of signs spelled ridiculously wrong, and I never questioned the relative absence of bookstores, or libraries, or books in general. I worked on farms, but I never tried going into a school to see what it was like. For better or worse, I never noticed the problem enough to even…notice.
Instead, I managed to find the books I needed at hostels. Every hostel had a cycling shelf, a tiny library, Lonely Planets mixed in with trashy romances, travel novels, the rare Bill Bryson, the more common Paulo Coelho. The books were almost all in English. I did fine.
It took me until 2010 to “check my privilege,” as the kids are saying nowadays. I was in Antigua, Guatemala — a colonial, touristy city an hour southwest of Guatemala City — and I was starting to write my own book, about Latin America, traveling alone, and teaching English. Antigua, one of Guatemala’s most modern cities, had one library, and every morning I went there to work.
The library, one long room, was usually empty, except for the librarian and me. She sat behind a desk, and behind her were the shelves. If I needed a book, she had to retrieve it for me. My Spanish wasn’t good enough yet to ask for anything, anyway, so I spent my mornings seated at a perpetually empty table. No families came in, no young couples, no retired folk. No one. No one touched the books, or wandered from one subject to another, or opened books at random and then put them back. No one sniffed the pages.
I didn’t quite understand why the library was always so empty until a book fair set up shop in the plaza outside. As I browsed, I discovered that each book cost at least $15, an amount that could cover my hostel bed for a week. Books, I realized sharply, suddenly, are too expensive. They’re a luxury item, designated for the rich, for the privileged. Guiltily, I remembered the crammed shelves of my childhood. The literary world is a sealed one, and as I held the expensive books in my hands, I realized finally how hard it is to break in.
I traveled another year, and then I moved back to the States and became a teacher. I work in New Mexico at a community college, and in the time I’ve taught, I’ve learned that illiteracy is a domestic issue, too. Many, many of my students don’t read. Some legitimately don’t know how. Some have learning disabilities, reading problems, and a lot don’t have the money or insurance to get any issues checked out. New Mexico is a poor state. A lot of students speak only Spanish at home, and many, especially if they moved here within their lifetimes, didn’t learn to properly read in Spanish. Now they’re being expected to read — and write — in English. Some students just don’t have the time, and some lack the courage. Many don’t see a reason; reading, they believe, has never helped them before.
My students who read almost always do better than the ones who don’t. Of course, I teach English, so that would make sense, but I’m still amazed at how reliable the correlation is between good writing and frequent reading. I can tell which students grew up reading books — even if they don’t anymore — and I can see that they are better communicators. I took over the college’s literary magazine last year, and at our annual reception, I could count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities in the audience. In a largely Hispanic town, the event was dominated by white people, because they are the ones who know about our magazine, submit to it, and read it. The problem is simultaneously no one’s fault and everyone’s.
Meanwhile, I do my best. When someone falls asleep in class, or admits to not having done the reading, or disrespects some piece of writing I fell in love with years ago, I don’t take it personally. Instead, I call on a student to read aloud. I make sure we read as a class every day. I give extra credit to students who submit to our litmag, and I spend hours contemplating writing prompts. Still, it’s hard to teach someone to love something if they don’t. I think that to want to read, you have to love books, at least a little. You have to know what reading has the capacity to do. You have to have seen for yourself where it can take you, what it can show you. So many people never have.
And it isn’t just my students. These are strange times, and today, living in a rich country doesn’t necessarily mean you read. In 2016, images speak louder than words — and usually do. Time is tight and must be budgeted carefully. Our media sources barrage us with too many words to process, and so we’ve become a society of skimmers.
Indeed, the reasons for illiteracy are more complex now than ever before, but one is that we don’t have the space for reading, or the silence that reading demands. We don’t fit it into our lesson plans, our evening routines, our Saturday mornings, because increasingly, we don’t see the point. It’s happening to me: I skim my emails along with my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the books I’ve been meaning to read languish on the table beside me, ignored. And I am the one percent, the girl who grew up rich in books, who put in her 10,000 hours of reading by the time she was 18.
Now, though, she reads much less.
Last winter, I went home for Christmas. My mom dug boxes from the closet, and my brother and I pored over the things she’d saved from our childhoods: postcards from camp, Christmas lists, sloppy paintings. At the bottom of my box was a story I wrote when I was 10 or 11, a Christmas tale about a girl who sees a beggar in the street. She gives him her shoes, or something — I can’t quite remember the plot. What I recall is being struck by the quality of the punctuation, the spelling, the formatting. I had known as a young reader what many of my students, community college students, have yet to learn: how to spell “there” and “their,” how to use a comma properly, how to capitalize the first letter of a name. It’s the fault of many things: our poor state, our bad high schools, the challenges facing our bilingual population. It’s because we don’t read with our children, though that seems the beacon of hope, the kernel of change, for I’ve always heard that literacy begins at home.
This year, my resolution is simple: to drink profusely of the written word. I will pass along good books; I will write reviews; I will read excerpts in my classes with my students. I will work to cultivate in my community a love for reading. I will check my privilege, because I have something that many do not: I have access to worlds upon worlds. I will make the time to read, for those who read grow rich.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.