Reading and the Truths on our Doorsteps

I read a lot. Outside of student papers and other work, my tastes are pretty eclectic. The last few things I read were New Yorker articles about Alabama artist Lonnie Holley and German reformer Martin Luther, a Sunday New York Times special about an Asian restauranteur-turned-sex worker who was found dead on the sidewalk, the last few chapters in the middle section of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, and the first couple of chapters of Edwidge Dandicat’s novel The Farming of Bones set in 1930s Jamaica, before I put it down to start Frye Gaillard’s Hard Rain about 1960s America. I do this, because reading such a variety of styles, genres, and subject matter opens my eyes to lives and places far beyond the scope of my everyday experience.

Mark Twain was quoted famously as saying, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” No reasonable person in modern culture would dream of choosing illiteracy, but somehow many among us live as if they had. We could blame this on smart phones and the internet if we wanted to, but the larger truth is that 2018 is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the NEA’s worrisome 1983 A Nation at Risk report, which detailed the decline in reading habits before either innovation had gone mainstream. No, it’s not YouTube and Netflix that are causing the problem . . . though they haven’t helped.

Sadly, in the Deep South, we’re ranked last in this quality-of-life area, too. On page 12 of the 2002 updated report titled Reading at Risk, we see that, in the South, our rates of reading literary works is the lowest in the nation, with Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee being the lowest of the low. Additionally, demographics on page 17 show that only 40.5% of Southerners regularly read fiction while a sparse 10.8% read poetry. Our rates down South run 5–10% below other parts of the country, with people in lower income brackets reading the least of all.

These statistics mean that about half of the people in the Deep South read very little or not at all. Because I’m a writer and a teacher of writing and English, people feel free – for some odd reason – to tell me either why they enjoy or why they loathe to read. (The latter group baffles me particularly, since they don’t seem to realize that it’s rude to look someone in the face and revile what he bases his life’s work on.) Quite a few confess that they don’t read at all, some admit that they don’t like to, and a few bold ones even going so far as declaring that reading is stupid. (To which I sometimes consider replying Pee-Wee Herman style: “I know you are but what am I!”)

However, the introductory paragraphs of that 1983 report give us an idea to the contrary, which should be very serious for us all to consider:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

Just as absurd as the notion that “freedom is the right to think just like I do,” the notion that reading is anything less than a positive force in the life of the reader can’t be taken seriously. Reading changes lives for the better. If I could assign one book to the entire Deep South, it might be Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority or Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name or James Cobbs’ The Selling of the South. If the people in this region read any of one those books, it’d be a whole ‘nother matter down here.

In modern American politics – and the South is no different – we hyper-focus our desire for solutions on who we elect to political office, but a larger truth lays on our doorstep, waiting for us to come out of our shelter and pick it up. The most basic principle of democracy is that it requires an educated populace that can make good decisions. And the best way to become educated is through reading, and what makes me sad is: the people who need to read the most read the least. And that won’t be altered by a program or an initiative or a school reform— it’ll get better when more people look at books and open them up, curious to know what’s inside.

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