I graduated from my high school with little problem and I had never read a book. I remember picture books about dinosaurs and a few Young Readers books and I was done. The library had plenty of Coles Notes for any book ever assigned in class. In the real world I had sports and sunshine and adventures, who had time for a book?
The book was “The Bourne Identity”, a cheesy pulp fiction genre piece. I was enraptured. It took me to a place I had never been before, and I have never looked back. I was, by now, in my twenties and already married.
I was telling this story to my son Benjamin one day and he turned to me and said, “Dad, that happened to me. It was the Hunger Games.” For my oldest, Nathan, it was “The Chronicles of Prydain”. One good book was all it took to make three literary primates into lifelong learners. All three of us now work in literate fields. Two of us write. All have been to university. Before that one good book I never considered anything beyond the world of blue-collar jobs and meniality. Neither of my parents had graduated from high school. I’m from peasant stock.
We go for breakfast and discuss history and cosmology. I am blessed. My youngest, Matthew, reads like a madman. He knows more about World War Two history than his teacher. We talk about Leningrad. My life is normal too, this is just something I stumbled into.
My father watched the discussion and then wanted in. At 76 he is back in university. I believe in the power of literacy, and not just as opposed to illiteracy. Some people cannot read but many more choose not to read. This is a form of illiteracy that few talk about. Electronic culture continues to fundamentally alter how we think, where we spend our time, and how we communicate. The numbers of people who do not read are legion.
I am pitching this to a literacy group and you are reading the pitch. As a clinician I witness the effects of this illiteracy every day. Mental health is strongly tied to one’s capacity to receive and implement information which is often complex and unfamiliar. Without regular positive input from people smarter than I am I may just be damning myself to a life of unrealized potential. In a multi-sensory world of shortening sound bytes, fewer and fewer people are reading works of substance.
The story of my family is not our story alone. The solution to this acquired illiteracy lies in awareness and education, like so many things. The difference here is, winning is so easy. Books are addictive and like all addictions you only need a few to be hooked. Most of us come in the door through trash novels, but that’s ok, those things are fun. Nothing is more pleasant than a great story in your ear buds on a sunny day. Just get people in the door, then give them a few good books. We need to get books back into people’s lives in a world spinning out of control. Books with pretty colours, electronic books, audio and picture books. I think I would call it One Good Book and interview my kids. Or your kids. Or whatever. Christmas presents, birthday gifts and dates to the library, stir in a play and a concert. Go to Belgium.
That first book led to other and better books and a different way of thinking about the world. I will always be grateful to Jason Bourne, that super spy, ninja, special forces, amnesiac. That was one good book.
So what book was it for you?