The other day I said to a friend: ‘My life at the moment seems to consist of writing, reading and learning’. She said: ‘That sounds like a good life.’ And you know what? It IS. But in thinking more about the way I lead my life, I realize that practically everything I do relies on my ability to read. I can’t remember a life before reading. My Mum always tells me the story of when I was two and my family was living in a big old house. One night I gave her the fright of her life when I emerged from the hallway in my white night-dress, trailing a nursery rhyme book and reciting: ‘Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fishy (sic) found it.’ She says that the noises of the old house probably scared me. While other kids may have carried a security blanket, I carried a security book…and have pretty much been doing so ever since.
Imagining a life without reading is like trying to imagine being blind or deaf. As a writer and editor, my livelihood would be gone. At a night called Read to me Tuesday I read aloud short stories, accompanied by musician Dave Evans. Obviously if I couldn’t read, that would go. Most days I find out what’s going on in the world by reading newspapers online. Last night I was telling a friend about the book I’ve just finished – ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville. Oh my, I wouldn’t be able to talk about books. As a little girl, I would not have been able to go all by myself to visit the different lands at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree and meet Silky, Moonface and the Saucepan Man. The huge, colourful world of fictional characters and stories would be gone, as would the instructive, educational and expansive world of non-fiction. I wouldn’t be able to read recipes, street signs, medicine instructions, operating instructions, and emails.
Those at the high-end of literary life are immersed in conversation about the fate of paper-based books and publishing in the era of global e-commerce. The other night my book club friends and I were considering the pros and cons of ‘book versus e-reader’. But consider this: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 46 per cent of Australians aged 15 to 74 have literacy levels below the “minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy.” That’s nearly half of the population. One in five Aboriginal people in remote areas of Australia can’t read at all.
I once had a job teaching literacy in an Indigenous education program. It was one of those experiences that flip your perspective on the world 180 degrees. I put myself in the students’ shoes and imagined the letters of each word as indecipherable marks on a page, the act of reading as difficult and frustrating. One of my students was 64. He had left school in Year 8 because his family needed him to work. Somehow, he had gone through these years of schooling without learning how to read. By being street-smart and developing a prodigious memory, he had secured jobs and a driver’s license, while being illiterate. (He’d asked a friend to read aloud the learner driver’s permit instruction book and memorized it.) One day he arrived at our lesson beaming, barely able to contain his glee. ‘I read my grandson a story,’ he said. But his pride and happiness were tempered. He had also realized what was in that book: a different way of seeing the world. It had occurred to him the pages of all the books in the library contained thousands of stories and he had lived his life without them.
Dear Reader, I’m going to make a donation to an organization that teaches people how to read. Would you do the same? Would you also consider asking all the people you know who love to read, or who make their living from words, to consider making a donation?
Here’s some organizations that teach literacy. I can’t vouch for any of them, or recommend one over another:
And speaking of words, I have to write and read a lot more of them in my non-blogging life, so I can no longer guarantee writing a post per week. If you enjoy my blog, please sign up as a subscriber and that way you’ll know when I’ve put up a new post. Happy reading.