Literacy and the Reading Success Story

This June marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ll have more to say on that next month. For now, one of the Google alerts I often receive is the story about the kid who didn’t read until picking up a copy of Harry Potter.
Such stories are part of the reading success narrative you will often encounter on social media. Some kid has trouble in school, and who, with the help of a compassionate teacher or librarian, turns his or her life around because of reading. These stories usually focus on a child’s experience of reading fiction for the first time. Fiction changes people’s lives; it changed mine. After losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven, I was introduced to books on tape. Reading has been my life and my work ever since.
As much as I want everyone to read the books that changed my life, I also recognize that reading success isn’t limited to fiction—and certainly not to the books I’ve read. Reading, at its most basic, is about literacy. It’s about one’s ability to engage with and understand the world through words and language. New comers to this country, for example, don’t need to read Harry Potter; they need a functional vocabulary in English so they can communicate effectively as they establish their new lives.
It’s also no surprise that exposing children to books at a young age helps develop their literacy early in life. A 2015 study by Dominic Massaro at the University of California suggests that reading out loud to children is actually a more effective means of building literacy than just talking to them.
Those people who identify themselves as readers are invaluable ambassadors of literacy. But here’s the flip-side. Readers can also be reading snobs.
“What! You haven’t read it!”
To my everlasting embarrassment, I’ve said this more times than I care to admit. And I’ve had people say it to me more than I like.
“What! You’re a professor, and you haven’t read it?”
Yes, I’m a professor. I read for a living. And no, I haven’t read it.
There are many paths to literacy—mine is one. Yours is another. Whether it’s Charles Dickens, romance novels, magazines, bird books, or (god help me) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (I can’t stand these books), reading is the path to greater literacy, engagement, and critical thinking. There are, of course, those people who only read to reinforce their own beliefs or prejudices, but this doesn’t take away from the main point: deliberate and careful reading—whatever that means—makes you a more engaged and compassionate human being. And who cares if you aren’t reading what’s trendy, or new, or any of that. Just read, and encourage others in their own reading.
My early teens was the time in my life I felt most isolated. Reading helped me to understand that worlds existed beyond mine, that others had, at least in part, gone through something similar. And as alone as I felt much of the time, reading always made it easier to bear.
So be a literacy ambassador. Buy a book and give it to someone you care about. It will set you back the price of two lattes—or just go through your shelves and find something you can give away. Literacy is power, so get out there and empower someone.