We’re always celebrating one thing or another in this country — some industry, product, cause, or way of life — whereby Congress and the Chamber of Commerce encourages the rest of us to show our love by wearing a colored ribbon and opening our wallets.
September is National Literacy Month.
Since Like the Dew is highly dependent upon literacy for its continued success, it celebrates the month by having one of its intrepid writers (one of them who can also read) spin a few words on the subject.
Now be forewarned, this is not one of those boring-ass online essays about literacy where all of the bandwidth is spent extolling its virtues. If that’s your bag, you can read any of those high priced authors on Slate, Salon, The New Yorker or some other rag where they actually charge money. There’s a little of that herein to be sure, but I’m not going to go off the deep end about it. What follows then is The Good, the Bad and the Utterly Dark Side of the Art of Reading. It is intended as an expose’ (more or less) as well some words of accumulated wisdom for the novice page turner.
Reading is simultaneously informative, educational, serendipitous and cheap entertainment especially in these days of outrageously priced cable-TV. Catching up on one’s reading ranks high on the list — along with sex, eating, drinking and smoking weed – as one of the most fun things one can do with or without pants. (Or maybe even while entirely naked.) Also consider that with reading, one doesn’t have to pony up for dinner, buy flowers, tip the maître d’ or risk contact with the undercover vice squad. The clean-up afterwards is also easier –by light years – than with sex, eating, getting drunk or smoking weed
What other activity besides reading can ‘the operator’ experience the full gamut of human emotions from near-orgasmic delight to boundless optimism to being scared witless to even being depressed as hell?!
To me, reading is as critical to life itself as oxygen, H2O or bacon. Reading books can take you places you’ve never been, introduce you to people you’ve never met and teach you things you’ve never fathomed (many of them legal) and believe me, there are a million worse ways to kill time, most of them involving cash.
Nevertheless, despite all of its existential joys, the fraternity of avid, no-holds-barred readers — i.e. librarians, as well those types that read everything that’s not nailed down to the page — can be overly effusive. Just as some converts do in their new found enthusiasm for tantric sex, tantric eating, a new found lover or a new found religion, we two-fisted readers are prone to gloss-over vital facts. Of course, this kind of thing has been going on since the invention of the alphabet. Certainly it’s been a problem since Guttenberg. It’s scandalous, really…and I’m am going to come clean. The bald-headed, naked truth is this: reading, like hot cars, fast women and cheap liquor can cause one no small amount of anxiety. Consider the following:
Sometimes, one of the biggest problems with reading is just seeing the material. In achieving my recent seniority, my eyesight is now such that ‘fine print’ really means FIND print. My once mighty nearsightedness has deteriorated so much that when it comes to fine print, Stevie Wonder sees better than me.
Another ages old problem with fine print, I’ve found in all these years I’ve been literate is this: apparently it is not always in the financial best interest of the writer of the ‘fine print’ to have the reader of the fine print to know what the fine print really intends. This is especially true when there is some kind of a bamboozle going on — which there almost always is. Now the bamboozler can be almost anyone but he/she usually emerges from a group consisting of (but not limited to) bankers, car dealers, lawyers, tele-marketers, politicians, medical bill administrators, government bureaucrats, Internet providers, those mofos known as student loan counselors and anyone who has a hyphenated job title ending in the word ‘-agent.’
Merely finding or locating the print and then having the patience to read fine print does not always solve the problem. Often it is where the problem mushrooms. Sometimes the fine print you read — the information you glean — turns out to be so onerous, so troublesome you wish you hadn’t found it in the first place. Take this stuff I once read on the back of a Major League Baseball Game Ticket. The print was woefully small — some microscopic font — which in and of itself spoke volumes’ about where the heart of team management was. The upshot of the fine print, the legal gobble-gook was:
“If you get hit by a thrown ball, a batted ball, a broken bat or even a bag of peanuts hurled by one of our vendors— tough shit! You’re on your own. In fact, if anything goes wrong while you are in our establishment, say, a jet engine falls out of the sky and lands on your head, it’s your fault. Don’t blame us. Don’t bother suing us, either. In fact if you complain at all, we will sue YOU!”
I’d made the mistake of reading this while I was at the ballpark watching the Cubs vs the old Montreal Expos. Needless to say, I fretted the rest of the game and kept one eye fixated on the field on the lookout for flying bats and thrown balls coming. The other eye I kept trained on the sky for falling space junk and whatnot re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Reading the fine print caused me to worry for the entire nine innings and miss most for the action on the field. Thanks fine print.
The Stuff that’s in Stuff
Sometimes, when I am feeling especially conscientious about reforming myself and eating in a healthy manner, I will read the contents of stuff I’m about to nuke in the microwave. Big Mistake! Reading the contents of most any processed food, say the ubiquitous ‘Microwaveable’ Shot Pocket, is terrifying if you are on a health kick –or not. Turns out the contents of most everything contains the names of impossible to pronounce chemicals and additives of more than five syllables, say ‘hydocholotrathoraxminaturecbutilhydratepolymore’ that can’t possibly have been meant for human consumption.
Upon reading ‘the stuff that’s in the stuff’, all of the mouth-watering anticipation I’d gotten my mouth set for immediately disappears into the ether and I throw the Shot Pocket into the garbage. I stalk off in disgust remaining hungry or I eat a rice cake which is the same thing.
The ugliest case of Reader’s Angst occurs when I’m seven years old. Curiosity and reverse psychology finally get the best of my seven-year old self and I yank a dangling mattress tag off the bottom of my bed. The tag commands in bold:
DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW
I had been reading for a few years and I knew exactly what the tag said. Its bold print was clear…and ominous. This was on par with those Ten Commandments that I’d just begun to hear so much about in First Grade at Catholic School. Now that I had defied the law, what would happen to me? How badly had I messed up? Did the tag itself keep the bed –or maybe the whole house — from falling down? Would removing it cause some cosmic disaster to occur like tearing a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum? What exactly was this penalty of law stuff? How long would it take for the authorities to come after me? When my Mom, the most law abiding citizen in the whole history of mankind, found out, how much time would I spend in ‘kid chain gang’? (The year I was six years old, my mother once recalled, I spent an awful lot time being grounded for one thing or another. This was the same year as the mattress tag incident, a year she later recalled that I “…spent more time being grounded than a blind Delta Pilot… more time in ‘(kid) chain gang than Al Capone.”)
I now knew what it was like to be a criminal on the lam.
I am now terrified, I have broken the law and the even though there are no surveillance cameras in those days, I just know that the authorities know about the torn mattress tag. I don’t know where to destroy the evidence.
I ended up burying the tag, the evidence, in a shallow grave in our back yard, praying the whole time that feeding birds weren’t attracted to just-buried mattress tags ensconced in shallow backyard graves.
The good news is that Mom never found out about the mattress tag, but for two years, until I was almost nine, I sweated bullets every time she went outside to weed the garden she’d planted on the exact spot where I buried the mattress tag. The anxiety about the mattress tag was almost too much to bear.
The bottom line axioms on reading and literacy are these:
- If reading begets knowledge and knowledge begets power, it can also beget angst…and regret.
- Enjoy your literary skills whether they are newly acquired or not. Just watch what you lay your eyes on. It is impossible to un-read something.
- The reading experience is definitely enhanced by a comfortable chair, proper light, but also a roll of antacids. Being a two fisted, read everything that’s in print reader has its pleasures…
but also its hazards. Better lay in a supply of Rolaids.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
 The writer has been known to get a ‘contact high’ from just reading a few pages of well-written prose. (Ok, Smarty-Pants, if you believe this is impossible, then why do I sometimes get the munchies after reading folks like Doctorow, Twain, TC Boyle, Junot Diaz and a host of others?)