The Rise and Fall of an American Boobacracy?

BY RICHARD K. MUNRO

JOHN MERROW
For generation after generation, most Americans have not learned to read with fluency.  Today most Americans apparently read only when they have to.  The numbers are daunting: 

  1. Roughly 21% of American adults are illiterate, and another 33% read at or below a 6th grade level; 
  2. Americans between the ages of 15 and 44 spend ten minutes or less a day reading books;
  3. More than half of adult Americans haven’t read a full book in over a year, and 
  4. Young people are reading less than half the number of books that older generations read. 

I included a few cartoons so we can laugh a little before we weep.

As a retired teacher I can tell you literacy has been gradually and continuously declining in America since the 1920s and 1930s.  My grandfather, for example, had very little formal education.   He went to sea as a boy apprentice circa 1894 at age 8.   Of course, in those days on British merchant ships the boy apprentices slept apart from the sailors and were tutored by the captain in reading, basic math, and navigation.   He was very good at basic math and tutored my cousin in high school and helped her graduate. She is grateful to this day. He died the day she graduated from high school.

They read the King James Bible, Scott, Shakespeare,  Dickens, and Burns.  One thing they did not do much of was writing so my grandfather was ashamed that he could not spell and write fluently.   He often would have a friend write letters for him and then he would copy them out line for line.     I suppose that way he improved his writing gradually over the years.  He had a very good-looking signature.    But I don’t think he ever read a book in his entire life.    He was an avid newspaper and magazine reader, however.  He loved to study maps and atlases.    He knew all the classes of naval vessels (he built a few) and he knew British aviation and German aviation and American aviation and production figures.   My father was a college graduate but he always believed his father had deep experience, knowledge, and wisdom even though he lacked degrees and diplomas.   I remember as a boy he read two or three newspapers every day (Daily News, Post, Herald-Tribune plus LIFE magazine and National Geographic).   He could smoke and read quietly for hours.  Of course, he read to me.  He read Kipling, he read comic books (Superman and Classics Illustrated), he read Greek Myths,  He knew some Gaelic but was almost completely illiterate in that language.   Similarly, he knew Scots very well but could not spell or write the way he spoke.  But my grandfather was no unusual.   His working friends all avidly read newspapers and political tracts (some were pro-Communist).   Similarly my father’s mother probably never read a single book in her whole life   But one book she knew very well was the Bible.   She was a devout Christian in the Roman Catholic tradition and it was not unusual for her to attend Mass seven days a week.    What she knew about art and music she mostly got from the church.   She had relatives who were teachers and priests and she had great respect for learning.   She was a very humble woman.  My father was greatly influenced by his uncle who was a teacher and later by his Jewish teachers and professors at Manual Training HS in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College.  

Unlike his father, my father was a very serious reader and an amateur linguist as well. He studied Latin and French in High School and German and French in College.  He taught himself SPANISH, TAGALOG, Italian, Ancient Greek and Modern Greek, as well as Russian.  His reading endurance was remarkable.   He read all of Dickens, all of Shaw, all of Stevenson, all of Twain. All of Shakespeare, All of Dante all of the Greek playwrights all of Cicero, all of Caesar, all of Xenophon all of Homer,  Cervantes,  all of Zola. of Balzac,  all of Victor Hugo.  All of Dante, all of Will Durant, All of Barzun, All of Gilbert Hight all of Orwell  I could go on. I was lucky enough to inherit most of his books I still have a long way to go but in 50 years have made some progress.

My wife is a reader my cousin is a reader we all read the newspapers and Reader’s Digest (for light reading)  My daughter a k-6 teacher reads dozens of books every year and belongs to book clubs.  Like her mother, she reads in Spanish and English.     Her small children are already playing with books and being read to.   They see their parents and grandparents reading,  My four-year-old granddaughter was going over a book of dinosaurs and animals and recognized dozens of animals in English and Spanish EXCEPT  Cheetah or Guepardo.    She said it was a leopard and I pointed out how big cats were different.   Jaguars, Leopards, Lions, and Pumas . She has a little toy Noah’s Arc and she lines up the animals and compares and contrasts them.  She knows colors and the things animals eats.   She loves going to the ZOO. This is how one develops readers.  By example and by reading with them and to them.

I told my students that you don’t get vocabulary by watching TV shows like “Friends”  I made a charter of vocabulary, and verb tenses of three different works  #1 was a random “Friends” episode #2 was a play by G B Shaw #3  was the vocabulary in a book like Tale of Two Cities, Tom Jones,  For Whom the Bell Tolls or 1984 by Orwell.    One could spend MONTHS  studying and commenting on the vocabulary and cultural allusions of the books. Years even.    Pyramus and Thisbe we see in OVID, FIELDING,  Cervantes, SHAKESPEARE, for example

  “Friends” had zero biblical allusions zero historical zero literary allusions and less than 8th-grade vocabulary.      Mostly it had low-brow off-color humor. But it was very clear the education and vocabulary one would receive from a TV show like this would be very limited. 

Of course, one could watch something a little higher up on the cultural scale, Laurence of Arabia,  Great Expectations,  the King’s Speech.    But it is not a coincidence that some of the greatest films are derived from plays and books. But generally, movies and documentaries are just summaries. ELMER GANTRY (1960_ was a fine film but only half or less than the book. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1943) was a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s novel but one needed the book to understand the background and the characters. It’s a rare movie that is better than the book. Three examples I can think of are John Ford’s GRAPES OF WRATH, John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, John Houston’s TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and STANLEY KUBRICK’s PATHS OF GLORY. I read the original books but they were not nearly as memorable as the film versions.

So one should read to gain vocabulary, facts, and information.    This could be the nutritional value of foods or the rules of a game or how to plant a rose bush or olive tree. This could be on how to maintain basic hygiene to reduce illness and avoid the flu,  VD or Covid 19.  

One should read to sharpen your mind and learn from the experiences of those in history or stories.  Years ago I saw the FILM ENCHANTMENT with David Niven and Teresa Wright.  My mother encouraged me to read the book which I did the Rumer Godden novel, “Take Three Tenses” This book was very important for me and for my life because it taught me a very important lesson:  When you find love and happiness don’t let it pass you by.  Take a chance and tell the person how you feel don’t be full of regrets like the Old General who lost the love of his life basically so he could advance his career.   A few times I met women who were really worthwhile and special women.   Sometimes the mutual chemistry and magnetism were not there.   So the relationship never developed or we broke up.   But when you find that love, that friendship, that laughter that joy, that trust you have to take a chance.  You can’t put off love forever do it by your 20s or early 30s at the latest.   Rummer Godden may not be the greatest author in history but she knew about some important things and she woke me up to the fact what was I doing wasting my life with people and women who could not make me happy?   I knew who I loved and just needed to prove to her that I could make her happy and secure.   So we fell in love and lived happily ever after.  And I thank my mother (and David Niven) and Rummer Godden for teaching me the way to make good choices.  But it all started with reading.

Reading teaches empathy and makes one more compassionate for the sufferings of others.   I remember the book THE EDGE OF SADNESS and  THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM and saw the glory and the tragedy of the life of priests and missionaries.    I had some interest in the priesthood and missionary work because I liked teaching and helping people.   But I could never be celibate because especially when I was 17-25 I just loved women and wanted to be with them!   I didn’t want all women however I would be happy with one.

Sometimes I have to travel by myself and wait in airports. I once spent five hours on a layover in Dallas and eight hours at Barajas Airport.  But neither were bad experiences because I had books to read.  There were clean bathrooms, cafés restaurants and places to sit.   So I read and drank coca-cola or coffee and then strolled and then snacked and then ate supper with a book or newspaper.  Before I knew it I was on my plane.   If I hadn’t anything to read it might have been dreadful but I always have a supply or reading materials old and new.  Reading is a great companion and sweet distraction.  Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet was right when he said “literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”     I once spent six weeks on Madeira. I had some hedonistic fun.  But what I enjoyed most was reading every morning and most afternoons in the garden of the small hotel where I was staying.   I had an entire suitcase of books that I carried around all over Portugal and Spain including one concise Oxford Dictionary and a small Collins Portuguese and Spanish dictionary.  When I finished with the books I mailed them by boat back to America and filled up my suitcase with the books I picked up.   The Casa Del Libro in Madrid naturally had a magnificent collection of Spanish,  Latin, Greek, and French books but they also had an entire floor dedicated to English language books.  They had a complete collection of Penguins and Everyman books plus many others.   I must have read hundreds of Penguins when I lived in Spain.  I still have a few by Walter Scott and Rex Warner and Michael Grant but most I gave away.  They were just disposable paperbacks after all.    I still have paperbacks and I still enjoy reading print versions of magazines Commentary, National Geographic,  Baseball Digest, and Reader’s Digest but I mostly read electronic versions of newspapers and books unless I really want to study and read a book deeply.   Some books I have on Audible books, hardcover, and e-book versions.    I enjoy adventure tales and westerns and many I listen to on Audible books.   But authors I meet on Audible books I often turn to and read their other books.  If a movie or audible book encourages you to get to know an author that’s great.  What one usually finds is reading is the most satisfying way to experience a book.   I know I remember MORE when I read a physical book than when I read an electronic book or listen to a book.   Having a physical book makes it easier to reference, write notes or re-read.  I find I rarely re-read e-books unless they are very special. One thing is certain. I cannot live without books. People who live without books are missing out on some of the best things in life.

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