I saw a poster once that said, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” I thought of my first grade teacher, Miss Enniert at James A. Garfield School. Although I can’t even remember what she looked like, I realize she was the main person who taught me how to read. She developed in me that incredible skill that eventually turned into a life-long passion. And so today I publicly say: “Thank you, Miss Enniert, for teaching me how to read!”
The ability to read is a marvelous gift. But what exactly is reading? Simply put, reading is a complex process of decoding signs or symbols in order to derive meaning from them. Imagine if you couldn’t read and you saw a book for the first time. What would you see? A bunch of pages with little black squiggly marks on them. When I was in Korea, I toured an elementary school with a library that had over 10,000 books—all in Korean, of course. I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be able to read a single book in that library—because I didn’t know the code to decipher all those squiggly symbols.
Reading is shaped by the reader’s prior knowledge, experience, attitude, and culture. That’s why Edmund Wilson could declare: “No two persons ever read the same book.” When we read, we usually read silently and without forming the words with our lips. But in the 4th Century, St. Augustine remarked on St. Ambrose’s “unusual” way of reading: He read silently and without moving his lips!
Literacy rates (which include both reading and writing) differ from country to country. Here are a few countries and their literacy rates: Russia, 99.7%, Canada, 99%; Australia, 99%; United States, 97.9%; Mexico, 95%, India, 72%; Ethiopia 49.1%. In some countries there is a
significant gap between male literacy and female literacy. For example, in Afghanistan male literacy is 52%, female literacy is 24%. A country with one of the lowest literacy rates is Niger in western Africa: Male literacy is 19.1%, while female literacy is 11%. Today world literacy is 86.3%, or 90% for males and 82% for females.
Here are 10 facts about reading that are worth pondering:
1) Worldwide, people spend an average of 6.5 hours a week reading.
2) In the U.S. 63 % of the adult population of prisoners are functionally illiterate. Whereas 85% of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
3) The Penguin paperback was created in 1935 to make books as affordable as cigarettes.
4) Throughout history, for religious or political reasons, books have been censored or burned.
5) Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” (His classic book tells of a futuristic world in which all books are burned. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire.)
6) Half of all the books sold today are to people over the age of 45.
7) Women buy 68% of all the books sold.
8) One in 4 adults have not read a book in the past year.
9) International literacy day is September 8.
10) Reading (and writing) are brain-stimulating activities that have been shown to slow down cognitive decline.
Many beautiful words have been used to describe the magic and power of reading. Here are two of my favorites:
Elizabeth Hardwick, literary critic, novelist, short story writer: “The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wider kind. It is a moral illumination.”
Mary Schmich, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist: “Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere.”
If you are still reading this, thank a teacher! And thank God for your good fortune to be a reader!
What role does reading play in your everyday life? in your spiritual life?
What impact has modern technology had on your reading?
Why do you read “Sunflower Seeds”?
Today’s song is “Seek Ye First,” written by Karen Lafferty and sung here by the Maranatha Singers. As scripture says, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The gift of reading gives us access to God’s Word found in the Bible:
Do you feel moved to share anything with us today—about reading, about something said in this reflection or the song?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for my annual retreat. Every day I prayed for my dear “Sunflower Seeds Community.” I ask for your prayers for a retreat I will be giving this coming weekend at Benet House Retreat Center in Rock Island, IL. Thank you! … And of course, I join with you in praying for peace on this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001… and for all our brothers and sisters suffering from the effects of hurricanes Harvey and Irma…