Illiteracy:

November 2000
by Linda Ligon, Interweave Press

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I recently read a couple of books back-to-back that had unexpected resonance. I didn’t choose them deliberately-both came at random from friends and gradually worked their way to the top of the precarious stack on my bedside table. One was Life Is So Good by George Dawson, the centenarian who finally learned to read and write when he was 98 years old. The other was The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, a contemporary German novelist. The Dawson book is what you’d expect-a century of prevailing against daily prejudice in the American South and finding the good in life and people. It’s a sweet, heartening story. The passage that stopped me cold was the one in which the author described traveling to Ohio back in the 1930s, finding for the first time in his life a cafe where Negroes were welcome to sit right up front, and leaving in shame because he could not read the menu.The Reader is trickier. You don’t catch on until you’re deeply into the book that the woman the story focuses on is illiterate; she has kept her secret well and at great cost. In fact, she allows herself to be convicted as a Nazi war criminal rather than reveal that she can’t read or write. Again, there’s a deep sense of shame that shakes up the value hierarchy of people like me for whom reading is second nature. I’m a reading slut, I confess it. I’ll read anything at any time. Trashy murder mysteries, cereal box ingredients, three newspapers a day, self-help nonsense, best-sellers, all kinds…IBPA Members – Click here to view the full article (login required).

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