I asked a classroom full of high school students: How many of you grew up in a home where your parents read books?
Two students raised their hands. Two. Each one answered that “my mom reads.”
I asked again: “Anyone here grow up in a home with a dad who read books?”
Not one student in a class of about 30 had a dad who read books.
One of the first things I noticed on my recent trip to Spain and France was how many people carried books with them. They would read on the Metro. They would read in the parks. They would read at the coffee shop. Everywhere I went I was surrounded by people reading real hand-held books.
Every few blocks in Madrid, I would run across a street vendor advertising “Libro” for sale. I was struck by the similarity to the word for book “libro” with the Spanish word for freedom “libertad”.
So much like our own word for freedoms.
Libro. Libertad. Liberty.
If this were algebra, it would read: Books = Freedoms.
Sometimes I think that perhaps it would serve Americans well to be occupied by a foreign entity. We take so much for granted in this country. Most of us have absolutely no idea what it means to suffer for freedom’s sake.
There’s nothing quite as effective as a bit of fascist rule to make a people yearn for the freedom to read a book of their choosing, to make a people yearn for knowledge that reading imparts and the power that is embedded in it.
When I was in Vietnam some years ago, I befriended a South Vietnamese. Before I left the country, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. “Yes,” he replied. “Send books.”
There is a reason the first thing any tyrant does is to control what the public reads, or if they read. We currently have a dictator-in-the-making who is doing just that. He has appealed to the masses of non-readers in this country. People who think Cervantes is a side dish for chips. People who think Lorca is a type of fish Spaniards eat.
This willful tyrant has no respect or understanding of any culture, not even his own. He has never read a novel. He does not enjoy the theater or the arts of any sort. He doesn’t have the attention span to sit through a cabinet briefing much less a production of Hamilton. He is an ignorant fool who has conned people into thinking he is successful. What he is is a crook. A liar. A thief. A charlatan.
Yet, his people, they do not care. They adore him. They worship at his feet. Literally. They rejoice in having someone as ignorant as them making hateful, racist policies.
Trump is the fascist they have been longing for.
In Spain and France, every time I rode the metro, someone had their noses buried in books. Oftentimes several someones. Men would pull a book out of their coat pockets and don their reading glasses. They might only get a page read before their stop, but for a few minutes they would read. Those paperbacks were worn from use, the way a paperback ought to be. I encountered men with books reading around the pool of the Medici fountain at Paris’s Luxembourg gardens. Something men and women have been doing for centuries now.
And of course, I encountered dozens of men and women winding their way through the shelves of books at Shakespeare & Co. The original store, established in 1919 by an American ex-pat, was closed in 1941 under German occupation, to never re-open. The current bookstore is more a memorial to those who had made that first bookstore their hangout: Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Man Ray, etc.
We have a crisis of illiteracy in the United States. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book beyond an eighth-grade level. Some 32 million American adults of voting age can’t read at all according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy.
One of the results of rise of ignorance in this country is a rise in a lack of civility in this country. Renowned scholar and cultural critic (and Appalachian State grad) Henry A. Giroux issued the following alarm over our growing illiteracy and civility problem:
The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world. The challenge it poses in a democracy is one of both learning how to reclaim literacy so as to be able to narrate oneself and the world from a position of agency. But it is also about unlearning those modes of learning that internalize modes of ignorance based on the concerted refusal to know, be self-reflective and act with principled dignity. It is a problem as serious as any we have ever faced in the United States.
The concerted refusal to know.
The concerted effort to be self-reflective.
The concerted effort to act with principled dignity.
This is not just a problem with our current administration but a problem with our Congressional leaders as well. As Rep. Justin Amash so rightly pointed out this week, most of his colleagues have not even read the Mueller report. How can they possibly be commenting on something they haven’t read, much less making a determination about it’s finding? It is their job to read it.
The problem with illiteracy and civility in this country starts with the leadership with this country and that leadership is sorely lacking.
It may not be very long now until we, too, come under authoritarian rule. If we do, it will be no one’s fault but our own.
We are making a concerted effort to be an ignorant people.
Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter and author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (William Morrow).