Sunday, January 20, 2008

Denied Access

We're alone with our thoughts, and alone in our habit of silently telling ourselves the story of our life day by day. When we read, we tune into stories created by another mind turning over the stones of thought. The written word is an extended hand, an invitation to connect, to share. The written word only comes back to life when someone else turns her or his attention to it. The act of reading is a powerful bond between strangers, and this common experience underlies my conversations with writers. We feel a ready rapport because we have both traveled the same trail of words, the same path through the labyrinth. The writer has laid the stones, the reader has set them more firmly in place by her tread. We are able to speak the same language even as we see the books under discussion from different perspectives. These are exciting and affirming conversations.

But often when I leave the studio feeling uplifted and grateful for communion with an artist and thinker I admire and reenter the larger world and look into the faces of strangers hurrying in the cold, I wonder, are books part of their lives? I've been speaking with writers for a decade and I will continue to do so. But now I'm going to extend my Open Books inquiry and speak with readers.

I feel that I'm part of a resplendent realm of knowledge, effort, beauty, wit, tragedy, and discovery simply by virtue of my reading. What if I was walled off from that paradise of language and empathy? What if I couldn't read? How would I navigate the wilderness of human emotion and endeavor?

I've always been aware of the shameful fact that in our great land many people not only go hungry, but are also starved intellectually and aesthetically. Boys and girls attend public schools, moving up grade by grade, and yet they do not learn to read. Smart, determined, and creative, they adapt, they conceal, they improvise. They drop out of school and get on with life. But far too many adults live diminished lives because their reading skills are rudimentary at best. For all that they accomplish, they are isolated and silenced. And many refuse to accept this fate. Men and women of all ages make the tough decision to try again to learn to read. I decided to speak with people who are striving to become literate, word by word, and thanks to friends, spent the best part of two days at a true haven, a true place of learning and love, a school called Literacy Chicago.

Nine stories above State Street is a community of dedicated teachers, tutors, and students. We three--Craig Kois, Neese Aguilar, and me--sat at a long table in an overheated, windowless room and listened to stories of neglect, struggle, reclamation, and triumph. Of love and hope. We felt humbled, privileged, and deeply moved. We are putting together a show based on these tales from the reading front, and recalibrating, once again, our understanding of what it takes to be a human being.

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