A Book that Speaks: Literacy and Making Good Use of It

I'm currently taking an African American literature class, and we're studying slave narratives this week. There is a constant theme throughout them of a talking book. Not being able to read or write, slaves would often think that when owners were reading that the books were actually speaking. Olaudah Equiano writes in his Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano this:

I have often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had beginning: for that purpose I have often taken up a book and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me, and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.

This passage and others brought forward some emotion from my colleagues, as well as myself. Could you imagine not being able to read? Could you imagine everything you would have missed out on: the knowledge, entertainment, and joy? It's difficult to comprehend what life would be like if you couldn't read. It hits close to home for me, though, because I have a grandparent that cannot read. His parents needed him to work the fields instead of go to school when he was young. That was the only way they could feed themselves. He's spent his whole life basing his reality and personal truths around what the trusted people in his life told him.

What's scary is that the illiteracy rate in American is rising. There are 49.6% of Americans that can only read at the lowest literacy level, and many that cannot read at all. Many equate the rising rates to the migration of Spanish speakers. Nonetheless, the ability to read is necessary to society. Studies have shown that low literacy rates can lead to higher crime rates. It simply saddens my heart.

What does this have to do with writing? As writers, we want our books to speak back. Olaudah listened but didn't hear anything. We want our words to scream off the page with emotions, teachings, and inspiration. There are wonderful books out there, but there are even more wonderful books yet to written. Great books inspire people to want to learn to read. Many children grow up and have their parents read to them before bed, and it's not long before they develop a longing to be able to read the books themselves.

As writers, we are the promoters of books. We believe in them. We know their purpose and there's no one better to share it with the world. Together we can fight the decline of literacy by writing good books and by inspiring young people to read.

What are your thoughts?


Lena Winfrey Seder said...

Thanks for sharing! I also took an African American course, but we concentrated on more modern writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison (who are great)! It interesting to read the slave narratives. And you make a very interesting point about 'talking' books. They wanted to learn to read, and many somehow did or their descendants did. But as you say, we still have a literacy problem today that needs to be combated. We need the efforts of people of all walks of lives to encourage reading and people who can help. Also, it helps to have group readings and to at least read aloud stories, to make small skits of stories, and to have books for kids from cartoons and movies (which we already do) but to have more of them with CD's to go with them to read to these kids. Even though my sons can read to themselves, they still enjoy me reading to them. It helps to have families reading books and stories together.

Vanessa Eccles said...

Lena, you're very right. It's wonderful to make time with the family to read. Children are always the answer to change. I appreciate your insightful comment. :)

Emily Wood said...

I absolutely love this post! I can remember my mom reading to me every night even after I learned to read. I could pretty much read by the time I went to school for the first time. My mom passed her love of reading on to me and some way it was passed on to one of my nieces. Great post, Vanessa.