It’s been a bad week for literacy. The People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street has been trashed, not once but twice. And presidential candidate Herman Cain has been quoted as saying that America “needs a leader, not a reader”. While that’s a cute and quotable slogan, it also demonstrates the growing anti-intellectual sentiment in the country.
Let me first admit bias. I am constantly accompanied by a book – often two or three, in addition to the pile of ebooks on my Nook. I think reading is awesome, and discussing/debating books even more so. But even in my circle, which is primarily performers, technicians and other artists, I’m beginning to feel like a bit of a freak. The movement away from reading is even more pronounced in the general population, and to an extent I get it. Books are “hard” entertainment; they require active involvement, as opposed to TV, Hulu, what have you, which are much more passive. But the problem we’re seeing runs far deeper, and is far more insidious – it’s a negation of the value of being literate and informed. People – from moms and dads, to community leaders, all the way up to politicians – are handing out verifiably incorrect information as truth, and when pressed, dismissing the objections as science-y mumbo-jumbo. And guess what? You can’t fight with that. It’s the intellectual equivalent of “la-la-la-I’m-not-listening”.
So what’s the solution? I think it’s two-fold – one part relies on the writers, one on the readers, but they’re both based off this key point: people want good, engaging stories they can relate to. Sounds obvious, right? The Harry Potter books created a world that everyone, without regard to age, gender, class or nationality, wanted to disappear into. And that’s our access point – if we can show people compelling stories that encourage curiosity and exploration without becoming preachy (that last bit is important!), we can start to reverse this trend. The Daemon/Freedom™ duology by Daniel Suarez embeds some fascinating ideas about the evolution of society in a tight techno-thriller; Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is about resistance and government surveillance, but it’s also a great coming-of-age/youth empowerment story. I know this sounds kind of manipulative – like subliminal education – but that’s not the way I intend it. I do think, though, that it’s just as hard to write a great book about something as it is to write a great book about nothing, so why not make a statement? Imagine a book with social justice themes and the market penetration of Twilight. That could seriously shake some things up.
What, then, is the challenge to the reader? Well, we have to read these books! We have to seek them out, talk them up, lend them to our friends, buy copies for our libraries, and make sure that positive, powerful literature gets the attention its due. After all, books have serious power – otherwise, the NYPD wouldn’t have paid a second visit to the library in Liberty Square. So if you’re feeling a need to change the world, walk tall and carry a concealed good book.
(By the way, if you’d like to contribute to the restocking of the People’s Library, you can find information here.)