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Worshipping the Written Word

Religion writer Valerie Tarico is traveling with her husband and two teenage daughters during the first half of 2010. Missives from the Southern Cross are her occasional dispatches from the road.
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read.
– Mark Twain

Piles of booksImage by Teemu Mäntynen via Flickr

The ability to read was sacred in my family; being a Tarico meant being a reader. I remember sulking when my parents bribed my younger sister, Kathy, with candy to get her through her first easy readers—Where was my candy? I read constantly if picture books were provided, which they were. Mom took us to the library weekly and came home with a box of picture books; thirty years later she would maintain the same ritual with Kathy’s sons, who she was raising. When I was in high school, my father suffered retinal hemorrhaging that left him with only blurry peripheral vision, 20/200 in one eye and 20/500 in the other. He was stoic, but until he got a brightly-lit magnifying glass that allowed him to scan a few lines at a time, he was lost—lost to the point that he actually instituted Days with Daddy on Saturdays with his five kids. Later, he got books on cassette from the Library for the Blind. The player let you speed them up, and over time he learned to listen at a speed that must have been close to his previous reading rate. To the rest of us it sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks. But it also sounded like life-as-normal.

Around the world, even the developing world, beautiful imported books including children’s books can be found in major cities. But most people have no access to such luxuries. John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Save the World, is founder of Room to Read, a charity that partners with small communities to build and stock children’s libraries. He describes the school in rural Nepal that inspired his work. On a spontaneous visit to a highland village, he was shown the school’s library, an empty room with a locked cabinet: “My heart sank as the school’s treasure trove was revealed. A Danielle Steel romance with a couple locked in passionate and semi-clothed embrace on the front cover. A thick Umberto Eco novel, written in Italian. The Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia. And what children’s library would be complete without Finnegan’s Wake.”

John’s experience in that Nepali school illustrates the three core problems with reading materials for literate children—and, I think, for millions of literate adults around the world:

1. The variety available is in no way sufficient to sustain an interest in reading through childhood and beyond.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, talks about the “10,000 hours” effect. Getting good at anything, he says, takes practice –more than we ever imagine. He talks about thousands of hours the Beetles spent playing covers in German bars. He talks about elite athletes and musicians. Over dinner last week, we speculated about whether Brynn (age fifteen) and Marley (age 13)—had hit the 10,000 hour mark. If you count being read-to, they are astonishingly close. The problem is, 10,000 hours of reading requires 10,000 hours of interesting reading materials.

2. The grammar and vocabulary often are inaccessible for beginning or intermediate readers, especially if they are in a second language.

To get interested and stay interested in reading, you have to get lost in it. My undergraduate degree is in Spanish. I graduated with “A’s”, but after four years of study and travel to both Spain and Latin America, reading in Spanish was and still is a conscious, intentional process. It takes focus and effort to extract the narrative from the newspaper, and I can only image how much nuance I miss. As a young adult studying in Madrid, I made myself read those papers, but even then if I wanted to read for enjoyment, I had to buy novels written for young adults. Luckily, a graduated array of materials was available in local bookshops and I could choose what fit.

Back when Marley started sounding out her first Bob books at age four or five, I promised her that someday reading would be just like hearing: she would see letters on a page and the words would simply jump into her mind. She hit that point with Dr. Seuss a few months later –and Phillip Pullman in seventh grade. How many literate people ever have the opportunity or reason to hit that point?

3. It is hard to argue that the contents are anything that makes people wiser, more virtuous, or better equipped to deal with our increasingly complex world.

Let me elaborate this third point a point because I think in the end it is a far bigger challenge than the other two. The first two problems exclude people from a high quality of literacy (rather than simply a high rate) . The third says, even if they can read effortlessly, what is the point?

Reading is a conduit for information, just like movies, arts, and the spoken word, no more, no less. We elevate reading as a member of the education trinity, first of the three “r’s”: reading, writing, and as they say here in India, maths. That is because we assume reading is a means of obtaining important information about the world around us—historical information, social perspective, scientific findings, practical how-to’s for day-to-day living. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, there may be situations where literacy makes people worse off. At an individual level, women with eating disorders often find that a part of their recovery is not reading women’s magazines and pop culture rags, which perpetuate for them an impossible body image. The challenge comes because these magazines, with their demeaning cover images, are virtually the only material sold in grocery lines and drug stores. They are, ironically, the only reading material available in many doctors’ offices. To not read them requires keeping your eyes focused on the chewing gum display or the fellow patient at the counter signing away her medical privacy.

At a societal level, it has been suggested that religious fundamentalism has followed literacy around the world. Helen Keller said, “The highest result of education is tolerance.” But if these sociologists are right, literacy has actually reduced tolerance, lending its support to a more rigid form of faith based on book worship. Consider: As a set of oral traditions and rituals, religion has room to shift with the culture in which it exists. But a perfect Koran or Bible is far less flexible . In a situation where few words are written, the written word is precious and powerful. Appallingly, it is the goal of many Christian missionaries to put that perfect Bible into the hands of literate people who have little access to any other reading materials.

This is a time honored practice in Christianity. During the Irish potato famine in the 19th Century, teenage girls who had been orphaned were shipped to Australia to serve as servants and brides for the predominantly male (ex-convict) population there. Each girl’s possessions were dictated by contract and packed into a small wooden box. The list prescribed a few dresses, toiletries, a Bible and a book of prayer (which varied, depending on whether the girl was Catholic or Protestant). In the Twentieth Century, an Evangelical organization called the Summer Institute of Linguistics identified tribal people with unwritten languages and then sent missionaries to codify their languages and translate the Bible. This work continues today.

The rise of the Taliban may rest in part on a similar missionary strategy that combines literacy and ignorance. When the Soviet and American forces stopped using Afghanistan as their boxing ring, they went home and took their nonmilitary resources with them, including resources for schools. Who stepped into the void? Iran and Saudi Arabia. Generously they built schools, schools called madrassas that taught only Koran, and only to boys. Watching the results play out around the world I can’t help but be reminded of another quote from Mark Twain: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

A pipe is only as valuable as the stuff being pumped through it. It is not just poor or marginally educated people that overrate the written word. All of us have to remind ourselves from time to time that just because something is in print it doesn’t make it real, or just because something was written a long time ago doesn’t make it particularly insightful. We have a bias to deify the words of our ancestors, forgetting the human process that wrestled them into existence. Americans speak of the constitution, for example, as if it were beyond question. Many Christians literally worship the Bible—giving it attributes of Divinity such as perfection and timelessness. In Afghanistan the Taliban outlawed recycled paper on the grounds that it might contain some small fragment of a paper that once had been part of a Koran.

So, imagine a situation where Bibles or Korans (perhaps with a counterbalance of pop culture schlock and ads) are literally the only written texts around. Imagine, too, that schools are virtually all in the hands of sectarian interests, and that most other printing presses are in the hands of the vast multinational multi-corporate sales force: PepsiCo (the written word tells me) is working to ensure that local people have free flowing natural water for future generations—not—like I had mistakenly thought—to ensure that drinking water requires plastic bottles and fossil fuel transport and produces profits in New York. Indian people actually are white, not brown, (it’s right there in print) and Ponds lightening cream can help to reveal the naturally fair color that is being hidden by that ugly dark surface layer of skin. Jesus saves; I read it on the front of an auto-rickshaw---one of the ones that didn’t have beautiful Arabic and a beautiful scimitar printed on the back.

I oversimplify, as always. But the reality that hits home in Tamil Nadu and even in Kerala (where the literacy rate tops ninety percent) is that literacy isn’t worth much if the vistas it opens up are a wasteland of Middle Eastern tribalism and Western gluttony. The ability to read, poorly or well, is a pipeline, constricted or free-flowing. Either way, a pipe is only as valuable as the stuff being pumped through it. Some contain black gold. Others contain sewage.

What is the solution? It cannot be to recreate the North American or European system in which billions of trees become leather bound classics, Tom Clancy thrillers, glamour magazines, and tabloids—or even self help books, scientific journals, poetry, and nuggets of timeless wisdom from Valerie Tarico. Our planetary life support system cannot afford it. In the ten years between the last two census counts, India’s population increased by twenty percent. The tree cover, as you might suspect, did not. The native forests are mostly gone to farm land and badlands – and to dusty groves of Australian eucalyptus planted by people in need of quick growing firewood.

So what is the next step? I think we have to begin by asking questions about content before we ask questions about technology. What if the reality-based community took “books”, including the next generation of communications technology, as seriously as the Gideons do? (I found Gideon Bibles in Fiji, Australia, Singapore and India in the last six weeks—in short, in every country we have passed through.) What is the collection of writings we would want in every hotel room or around the world? What information would we want to give the people of Haiti (instead of solar-powered Bibles like the ones that were sent after the recent earthquake)? What would it mean to be as devoted to education as the Saudis or Jesuits have been? What if we, rather than the Wahabis had rushed into Afghanistan with books and curriculum plans when the cold war ended?

A young American, Neil Mellen, was enrolled in a Virginia military academy when he made national news by refusing to pray to a god that he, an atheist, didn’t believe in. Neil is very clear about his values. After graduating, he joined the Peace Corps and like John Wood of Room to Read began building libraries for children by soliciting used books from family and friends. John’s passion has become a full time endeavor, an international NGO with programs across Asia and Africa. Neil’s has stayed personal. After returning to the U.S. he founded Habele, a small nonprofit that pays secondary school tuition for students living on Micronesia’s outer islands. The best schools he can find within reach—and he pays for them—are Christian schools that sell Neil’s kids a supernaturalism he doesn’t believe in. Neil is very clear about his priorities. Why doesn’t he have other options?