Travis Hugh Culley's memoir about his struggle with literacy, A Comedy & A Tragedy, includes a number of good lines about literacy in general. Here are some of them:
Mom believed there was always a name for a thing -- you only had to know where to look. In her mind, the world had already been figured out and that's why we had books. She didn't expect me to take an interest in reading them.
That reminds me of something one of my high school English teachers said. He said the most important thing we would learn in school was not all that information we were struggling to memorize for tests but rather how to find out what we needed to know. We needed to be aware of the kinds of information available in books and then be able to dig out that information as needed. That seems similar to the message conveyed by Culley's mother, except that while he interpreted it to mean literacy wasn't really necessary, I viewed it in a more positive way. Maybe I couldn't learn everything, but if I knew how to read well and how to use a library, I could learn anything.
"And it doesn't matter if you can't write. It doesn't matter if you can or can't read a book! In fact, most people don't read books." He laughed. "If you want to be a part of a big group, don't read anything at all."
Culley's high school friend has put his finger on why so many people can't read or, if they can read, don't read. Their friends don't study, so they don't study. Their friends spend every moment of free time watching television or playing electronic games, so that is what they do. The most literate people may be those with the most literate friends or those capable of leading independent lives. In his book, Culley describes how he made his greatest progress after he moved away from home while still in high school, lived alone and spent long hours in solitude reading and writing.
What I've learned is that literacy is a reflection of a need to document experience.
People write books, journals, e-mails, texts, scholarly papers, whatever, to express what they think, how they feel, what they've done, what they have imagined and so forth. We read to share that experience with others. You can, of course, express the same things by talking, assuming you have someone to talk to, but unless you are recording what you say, you leave no permanent record. To write is not to achieve immortality. Still it is a step in that direction.
By writing, we learn about ourselves.
I had no idea what I was going to say about these lines from Culley's book when I started this post. I just knew they were worth a comment. By putting thoughts into words I learned something about literacy, but mostly I learned something about myself.