Archives For Illiteracy

Slipping into Illiteracy

November 2, 2016 — 7 Comments

no-readingIs it worse to be illiterate, or simply to not take advantage of your ability to read? Mark Twain is errantly credited with this wise statement: “The person who does not read has no advantage over someone who cannot read.”*

I would take this a step further. It seems to me that illiteracy need not mean the inability to read. It can also be used to describe those who choose not to read.

And, in the United States at least, we’re on a downhill slide when it comes to how much time people spend reading each day. Reading that’s not related to their jobs or educational requirements.

The data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which examines in minutiae how citizens spend their time. The most recent American Time Use Survey reveals the disturbing trend.

reading-graphicThe descent begins at the precipice, where those who are seventy-five years old or older enjoy reading for an average one hour and forty-eight minutes each day. It slams to the ground for those fifteen to nineteen who devote only thirteen minutes to leisure reading.

Amazingly, that group is not the worst. Those who are twenty to twenty-four read nearly 8% less than they do, clocking in with a mere twelve minutes. The grim details are available here.

Obviously, we may assume that older people have more leisure time. A second consideration may be that their constitutions are not up to some more physically demanding activities. To minimize the effect of the “workday” influences, the numbers cited above come from weekends or holidays

But even combined, these factors cannot account for the radical differences we see. Younger people are simply not reading.

Too Little Reading

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about reading. He regarded it as one of the essential joys of life. He may not have been surprised by these statistics, but he would certainly have been aghast. I have written in the past about Lewis’ views on literacy in “Knowing Our ABCs.”

For Lewis and, I suspect, many readers of Mere Inkling, the desire was always to find more time for reading. In a 1919 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he cited the inescapable dangers of reading too little.

If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep.

Lewis was also familiar with demands of responsibilities that devour our time and leave little for leisure of any sort. In another letter to Greeves, written eleven years later, he describes this predicament. I share it here at length because it also offers an insight into the role of reading in nurturing his reawakening faith.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book.

Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Reading can clearly be good for the soul. And it has another benefit that even unbelievers celebrate. It breaks through the isolation that plagues human life. Technology, it appears, is not delivering on its promise to dispel loneliness.

Reading, in contrast, possesses for many that very power. And a quotation frequently misattributed to Lewis,** but clearly consistent with this beliefs, captures this truth.

We read to know that we are not alone.

_____

* Although Twain is commonly cited as the originator of this phrase, the earliest written parallel appears to be a 1910 publication in which the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote: “Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?”

** On the internet you will frequently find these words attributed to Lewis, and in a sense they do come from his lips. It comes from the television film Shadowlandswritten in 1985 by William Nicholson for BBC.

The image at the top of the page comes from this interesting video with a unique contemporary twist on reading:

potterSo much for the effectiveness of “state churches.” The European ones appear to have become abject failures. There is ample evidence that the “establishment” of religions has rarely served either church or state very well.

Here’s the latest proof from the United Kingdom. The BBC recently reported a study that shows three in ten teenaged Brits don’t know the Nativity of Jesus came from the Bible. Similar numbers had never heard about the Crucifixion or Adam and Eve.

I imagine they’ll consider the new Noah film just another work of Hollywood fiction. (Actually, half of them didn’t know that very story comes from the Bible.)

What’s more—their parents are nearly as ignorant.

Many of the teens did, however, think that the plotlines from the Harry Potter series were based on Bible stories.

As a person who was genuinely inspired by England’s magnificent cathedrals while I lived there, it is painful to contemplate the terrible loss. The great-great-grandchildren of saints who suffered and sacrificed for the Gospel have disregarded the good news.

And, lest any readers think I’m pointing fingers as a “self-righteous” American, let me assure you I take no pride in my own nation’s slide into apostasy. The words of Micah’s prophecy seem closer to fulfillment each day. “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.”

C.S. Lewis saw this coming. Consider the following from his 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.”

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely. Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose.

It may be so. There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them. Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

Speaking of reading the Bible “as literature,” that’s not a bad thing. It informs so much Western literature, that an ignorance of the Scriptures is tantamount to possessing an inadequate education. An excellent online resource for exploring this truth can be found at the Bible Literacy Project.

The site includes a copy of a comprehensive 2006 study of English professors from America’s top-rated schools, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others. In the study, not a single professor disagreed with the statement that: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.”

If some people could get past their prejudices against the Bible, they would recognize the truth of this statement. Everyone should be reading the Bible, even if only as a significant literary work.

Perhaps, if this widespread study comes to pass, one day people will be able to recognize the difference between the Scriptures and Harry Potter.

Recycling Literature

July 15, 2013 — 16 Comments

recycled pageMany subscribers to Mere Inkling share a common trait with C.S. Lewis. Like your humble blogger, you are lovers of books. We don’t need to apologize for it; it’s in our DNA.

We carry that astonishing gene that manifests itself in a passion for the written word. (It’s frequently inherited from a parent who possessed the same ardor.)

If you’re one of this corpus of literary addicts, you just nod your head in agreement whenever you hear Lewis’ oft-quoted, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

If you love books, if you don’t mind owning copies that others before you have enjoyed, and if you are on a tight budget, you might want to join me in becoming a customer of Better World Books.

[I have no interest in this nonprofit organization other than genuinely commending them to you as a wonderful source of inexpensive books. Most books have been officially removed from library collections . . . and require new homes. The “profits” are directed towards libraries and literacy programs.]

Many of us have enjoyed walking through rows of books on sale in local settings. This is a little like that, except that you can do digital searches and they have tons more titles available. (Literally.)

One of my recent purchases was Latin for the Illiterati. I purchased it the same day I bought The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations (for a secret project I’m working on).

Latin for the Illiterati includes “common phrases and familiar sayings,” that the reader is now able to decipher when encountered in classical literature. References do not have to be ancient to be included. For example, “salus populi suprema lex esto,” which means “the welfare of the people is the supreme law.” (But I didn’t need to translate that for you residents of Missouri, since it’s your own state motto.)

Quick test, which state has this as its motto? “Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet,” which means “the voice that is heard perishes, the letter that is written remains.” Actually, I cheated a bit, I don’t think it is any government’s motto, but it certainly is a truism that will resonate with readers!

C.S. Lewis valued rereading good books. In a 1915 letter, he wrote, “There is something awfully nice about reading a book again, with all the half-unconscious memories it brings back.”

In that same spirit, the following year he wrote to the same friend, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.”

As I said, he was explicitly referring to revisiting a work already read. Nevertheless, I believe he would agree with the broader sense of his words . . . that it is a sad thing to see a book destined never to be read again.

Whether or not I am correct is irrelevant. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of books awaiting new homes. I don’t doubt that many of them “deserve” to be recycled for their raw materials. However, I also believe that the majority of them remain capable of teaching and inspiring. After all, litera scripta manet, right?

Knowing Our ABCs

November 28, 2012 — 12 Comments

Most readers are familiar with the amazing story of Jeanne D’ Arc (Joan of Arc). She was a French peasant who received visions which proved accurate. She foresaw victory for a humbled nation which had not experienced a major military victory for an entire generation.

Jeanne led the army of the Dauphin (the heir to France’s throne who would reign as Charles VII) to unimaginable victories. She was seriously wounded but inspired her troops with her swift return to battle. She counseled, and prayed for mercy, but recognized England could only be repulsed from French shores by force.

Tragically, she was captured and the English, following a sham trial, judged her guilty of heresy. Jeanne was only nineteen when she perished in flames in an English blaze. Just twenty-five years later, a special court convened by the Pope found her “not guilty” of the crime, and proceeded to declare her a martyr. She was canonized in 1920, nearly five centuries after her brief but brilliant life.

Recently, while reading more about her life I was reminded of something startling she said during her first “inquisition.” When she originally presented herself to the Dauphin, no one could believe a modest young farm girl could be France’s rescuer. A commission of inquiry, comprised of a number of senior clergy, offered the Dauphin a “favorable presumption” that she might, indeed, have divine sanction.

During that “trial,” she was vigorously questioned. The following account comes from Medieval History by Israel Smith Clare.

It is very interesting to see how she evaded the difficulties, overcame the objections, and quietly set aside the learned cavils of the doctors by the simplicity and directness of her replies. They first asked her what signs she could show them to prove her mission. She answered: “I have not come to Poitiers to show a sign. Give me some men-at-arms and lead me to Orleans, and I will then show you signs. The sign I am to give is to raise the siege of Orleans.” One of the [theological] doctors responded thus: “But if God wished to deliver the city he could do it without soldiers.” Jeanne replied: “The soldiers will fight, and God will give them the victory.” Brother Seguin of Limousin asked her, in his provincial dialect, in what idiom her angels spoke. She answered: “In a better idiom than yours.” Said he, somewhat angrily: “Do you believe in God?” Jeanne replied: “I have more faith in God than you have.” The sharp man was thus silenced.

Still the doctors proceeded with their examinations, asking repeated questions and suggesting many learned difficulties. Said Jeanne: “Why do you ask me all these things? I do not know even my A, B, C; but I have come, by God’s command, to raise the siege of Orleans and crown the king.” Having nothing more to say, the doctors finally decided in the maiden’s favor, to which they were somewhat influenced by the great reverence which she inspired among the people of Poitiers by her holiness and piety . . .

Jeanne’s final comment which stands out. The fact that she was illiterate was, to her, no disgrace. She was confident God had chosen her to accomplish the historic events which surely followed.

We live in an era where nearly all adults in the industrialized world are literate. Even in less privileged lands, literacy rates hover around fifty percent.

We—especially those of us who love words and write—tend to look down on those who are not as eloquent as we consider ourselves to be. A woman like Jeanne reminds us that one need not be educated to be truly eloquent. She put the ecclesiastical patricians in their proper place. And rubbed their proverbial noses in it, when she emphasized her illiteracy. Devout, courageous, humble . . . and sarcastic toward condescending clerics—I’m eager to one day meet her!

While knowing one’s ABCs bears little correlation to personal virtue or merit, literacy is essentially a good thing. How impoverished our lives would be if books were sealed to us and we could not be transported to novel places and new epiphanies in their pages.

C.S. Lewis shared this awareness that illiteracy was something that could bar some from experiencing life’s most important treasures. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, he draws a wonderful picture of the relationship between the image and the word. In this allegory, the Landlord represents God.

“. . . The Landlord has circulated other things besides the Rules. What use are Rules to people who cannot read?”

“But nearly everyone can.”

“No one is born able to read: so that the starting point for all of us must be a picture and not the Rules. And there are more than you suppose who are illiterate all their lives, or who, at the best, never learn to read well.”

“And for those people the pictures are the right thing?”

“I would not quite say that. The pictures alone are dangerous, and the Rules alone are dangerous. That is why the best thing of all is to find Mother Kirk at the beginning, and to live from infancy with a third thing which is neither the Rules nor the pictures and which was brought into the country by the Landlord’s Son. That, I say, is the best: never to have known the quarrel between the Rules and the pictures. But it very rarely happens. The Enemy’s agents are everywhere at work, spreading illiteracy in one district and blinding men to the pictures in another. . . . As often as men become Pagans again, the Landlord again sends them pictures and stirs up sweet desire and so leads them back to Mother Kirk even as he led the actual Pagans long ago. There is, indeed, no other way.”

“. . . The Landlord succeeded in getting a lot of
messages through.”

“. . . These pictures woke desire.”

“. . . And then the Pagans made mistakes. They would keep on trying to get the same picture again: and if it didn’t come, they would make copies of it for themselves. Or even if it did come they would try to get out of it not desire but satisfaction.”

Elsewhere, in the essay “Some Thoughts” in God in the Dock, Lewis expressly (and correctly) declares literacy itself as one of the things for which Europe should be grateful to the Church.

[One looking at] Christian activities which are, in a sense directed toward this present world . . . would find that this religion had, as a mere matter of historical fact, been the agent which preserved such secular civilisation as survived the fall of the Roman Empire; that to it Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilised agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighbourhood.