Who Reads in America?

Two years ago, while sitting in a café in Brooklyn on a cold winter night, I ran into "Chicago Mike." In the crook of his arm he held a thick and tattered book. I asked him what he was reading and he told me it was the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon. I asked him if it was the abridged edition.

"No, it's one volume of the un-abridged text. Who needs to read the edited version?"

After ordering a cup of coffee, and with a smile on his face, he got on his bike and rode off into the snow. Mike delivered weed for a living.

The other day I read in a local paper that the department of education had released a report describing the eroding literacy skills of college students in America. One wonders if this is a bellwether for the country as a whole. What does it mean when high-achieving college students are reading less proficiently than their counterparts a generation ago? Are we slowly becoming a nation of non-readers?

This isn't the first time I've seen a red flag raised. Ten years ago Lewis Lapham heralded the death of literature in a published letter to his nephew (himself an aspiring writer) in Harper's magazine. I wondered then, as I do now: Could this be true?

I've always found literacy and literature outside the mainstream and in the private corners and cracks of society. Below Manhattan, in the city's subway system you can find more readers of classical and contemporary literature than you can in all the city's libraries. I wonder how the report might have come out had NYC subway riders been tested?

I once helped run writing workshops in the maximum security units (cell blocks) in Juvenile Halls in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Young inmates, considered the worst offenders in the Juvenile system, found themselves confined to a small cell for the majority of the day. In many of the units even paper and pencil were considered contraband. Though desperate to get out and resume their lives, many of the kids confessed that before doing time they had never finished a book.

Among the titles I was asked to bring in by kids in the program were The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas and, on one occasion, Oscar Wilde's De Profundis.

Rob Tell was an old roommate. A college dropout, he worked a variety of jobs to earn a living -- bike messenger, shuttle driver, spot carpenter. Some years, Rob would follow the harvest trails. He spent his late summers in Maine raking blueberries, early fall in Massachusetts picking cranberries and he harvested beets in Minnesota in February. In a bar or at home, Rob could recite verse from Dylan Thomas or William Blake or a sonnet by Shakespeare, and always at an appropriate moment, either to break up a fight or during a toast.

Like Rob, I never graduated from college, and barely made it through high school. I've worked a variety of jobs, trying to support myself, sometimes going through long spells of unemployment, though not for lack of trying.

For the better part of my 20s, I was tremendously lonely, both physically and emotionally. I became an amateur boxer to deal with anger and frustration, and I read a great deal because it gave me solace.

I read Flannery O'Conner and John Milton, James Baldwin and William Styron, Homer and Shakespeare. I read Hills Like White Elephants, by Hemingway over and over again until I could understand it. I read everything by Stephen King (still do).

All that reading never found me a job, nor scored me any friends (though both came in time). I'm not sure if it really ever made me any more intelligent. Yet it did ease the loneliness. It did broaden my perspective on people and the world. I found it easier to live with my problems and in my own skin. I discovered that from a literary perspective there really is no such thing as not fitting in.

Richard Rodriguez, in Hunger of Memory, compares himself to Caliban, a half-human, spiteful creature out of Shakespearean mythology who secretly thumbs through his masters books, teaching himself to think, to read, and to plot. The son of Mexican immigrants who spoke Spanish at home, Richard found it ironic that as a young man he found himself alone in the library at Oxford studying 19th century English literature.

I have no answers for the Department of Education. I'm not sure if a "proficient reading level" is even that important for students in higher education. To Mr. Lapham, however, I would say that literature seems to come from the dysfunctional edges of culture and society.

Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, as did Virginia Woolf. Flannery O'Connor raised peacocks by herself in Milledgeville, Ga., and Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis on tissue paper with bits and pieces of charcoal while serving time in Reading Gaol, charged with "gross indecency."

I think that it's society's outcasts who will continue to treasure and reproduce literature. There are thousands of inmates in America's penal system who receive high school and college diplomas through correspondence. There are thousands of homeless who have no access to TV or the Internet but can find a discarded copy of Crime and Punishment in a trash can.

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