Reading is Fundamental. But what can writers do to support literacy?
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I saw commercials like this one, public service announcements for Reading is Fundamental (R.I.F.).
Originally started in 1966 by Margaret McNamara, the wife of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, RIF still provides 4.5 million children with 16 million new, free books and literacy resources each year. Reading Is Fundamental for America, yet millions of children are living in the U.S. without access to books.
According to a study conducted in late April 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read at all.
As I travel around the country, I find fewer and fewer school-based librarians. Sadly, they appear to be part of a disappearing breed.
My eldest daughter just went through her freshman year of high school biology without a textbook, because the school system in Georgia (12th worst state educational system in the country) couldn’t afford a book for every child.
And the international situation in developing countries is yet more dire. Globally, the youth literacy rate hovers at 91 percent, but young women account for 59 per cent of the total illiterate youth population. In several countries in West and Central Africa, youth literacy rates remain less than 50 per cent. (Unicef)
The Power of Literacy
The ability to read and write is essential to the spread and exercise of basic civil human liberties. Without the ability to read, people are at the mercy of what those in power tell them is true:
- “You owe us this much money in taxes/fines/fees.”
- “We can take your first-born children and sacrifice them in a fiery holocaust to the Bull-God Moloch.”
- “Those foreigners are demons who want to destroy our way of life.”
- “See, it says so right here in writing. Oh, you can’t read? Believe me. Trust me. That’s what it says…”
Without the power to read, the illiterate are vulnerable to victimization by all manner of politicians, charlatans, and doomsday prophets. A recent US Presidential candidate famously announced on the campaign trail: “I love the poorly-educated!” I doubt he meant he would give them all a hug. I rather suspect that he was gloating over his ability to lie, cheat, and swindle people who took his words at face-value, because they had limited resources through which to validate his many outrageous and unsubstantiated claims.
And this was in one of the most powerful nations on Earth, with a literacy rate in the high 90s. Imagine the potential for harm in a nation with a much lower literacy rate, and even less scrupulous leaders!
The Power of Free
Free can do a lot for you. It can get your books into the hands of those who might not otherwise be able to afford them, and (if you’re any good) a free book might hook new readers into buying the next book you write. And the one after that. And the next ten after that.
More importantly, by publishing one’s work to free reader platforms like Wattpad, Tablo, and Royal Road Legends, one is making one’s work available to places that can maybe get an internet connection more readily than they can get a book.
As a result of my publications on such free platforms, my own Matter of Manred series has a healthy following in places like the Philippines, Singapore, India, and Nigeria, and I’ve received mail from students and teachers in such places, thanking me for making my work available. One classroom teacher in Nigeria has even told me that they’ve been using my work to teach English literacy to secondary school students.
Our Books Are Not Free
However, there’s a vocal movement in the indie author community that loudly insists, “Our books aren’t free!” And I can sympathize with them. No one is paying me a living wage to survive long enough to finish my next book. They only pay for the finished book, and usually less than the cost of a cappuccino, which means I need to sell gajillions of copies to survive on writing alone.
Worse, many readers have become accustomed to receiving free books. Especially among indie authors, one of the few ways to successfully compete against each other and traditionally-published authors in a crowded marketplace is to lower the price of one’s book. Amazon encouraged this “race to the bottom” several years ago, and some indie authors cashed in early on this trend, but at the expense of creating this “expectation of free” among readers.
This “Our Books Aren’t Free” movement aims to raise the professional standard of indie authors everywhere, discouraging widespread free giveaways in favor of better writing and an improved level of book marketing skill.
Make no mistake. I wholeheartedly support better writing, better book marketing, and getting myself paid (or at least eating from time to time).
But one consequence of the “Our Books Aren’t Free” movement is that these authors maybe aren’t making their books available as tools for developing literacy.
So what are we to do? Writers need to get paid for their labor, but there are millions around the world that can’t afford books, or don’t have the skills to read them. Writers can’t just send free copies of their books to everyone.
Think Globally, Act Locally
There are a number of things that writers can do to help support literacy efforts.
Local libraries provide a positive, encouraging environment in which students can find books that they want to read and where teachers can find books to share with students. My own local county library system has six branches. It cost me only $26.22 + shipping to provide a free copy of my latest book, The Wedding of Eithne, to each individual branch. For all four of my books, the cost to me was less than $100. And as a professional writer, it’s tax-deductible, both as a non-profit donation and as a business marketing expense.
Find or set up reading clubs in your area, where kids and adults can share a love for reading. Use your author discount to get reduced price copies for the reading club members and ask them to chip in to cover your production and shipping costs.
Partner with local bookstores, like Black Dog Books in Newton, NJ, which offers free readings on Wednesday afternoons to children and adults, and which sponsors literary activities like my own upcoming book reading and discussion event. Events like these can teach young children to love reading, and inspire older children to improve their own reading and writing skills.
Volunteer at a local daycare, hospital, or retirement home to read to the young, the sick, and the elderly. My own grandfather, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for years in a veterans’ home, enjoyed my monthly readings at his bedside even long after he had forgotten who I was or why I was there.
Please: reading truly is fundamental. Support Literacy, however you can, and wherever you are!
- Non-Profits: A Pro-Literacy Tradition | Reading Rockets
- Room to Read: Nonprofit Supporting Girls’ Education & Literacy
- Reading is Fundamental
- World Literacy Foundation