Literacy from the ground up

Individuals come up with creative impetuses to encourage people to read

Mike Selby

It took over a year, and a lot of campaigning, but avid reader Victor Miron finally got his wish. In his home town of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, bus transportation was free of charge to anyone with a book. For five straight days, if you read on the bus, transportation was free.

Although Cluj-Napoca’s City Council was skeptical at first, a full year of positive feedback from the residents helped change their minds. In the end it was a win-win situation for all involved. The city itself received positive world-wide recognition; public transportation became heavily discussed and exciting. More importantly, those who already read on the city buses were rewarded, while many new readers were created.

Closer to home, a similar idea was sparked by Courtney Holmes, a Dubuque, Iowa, barber. Worried about the reading ability of the children he encountered, he came up with a novel idea. If a child of any age read to him while he cut their hair, the haircut was free. When word got out lineups snaked outside the doorway to Holme’s salon. He patiently listened to kids read to him through a marathon of cuts, always turning the clippers off to help youngsters sound out any words they were not familiar with.

“I think a lot of parents realize that literacy is important, but I don’t think they are actually doing that in their homes, reading with their children,” Holmes told reporters. “This is one small way that we can start something — to reach out to parents and let them know the importance of reading.”

What Holmes felt instinctively, government statistics confirmed. In Dubuque alone, if a child enters the third grade not reading at a third grade level, that child will never reach high school. That third grade reading level is also the level of the majority of Iowa’s prison inmates.

Of course reading does more than give inoculate children against bleak futures.

Michael Grothaus, a reporter for Fast Company, credits reading for repairing his mental health.

A few years ago, Grothaus was despondent when his being passed over for a job promotion collided with being rejected by the handful of universities he had applied to. Overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, he began to read ‘War and Peace.’ When he was finished, he felt something had changed in him. For reasons having nothing to do with repelling French invaders, Grothaus felt more in control of his own life, found it easier to focus, and was more optimistic about his future.

What happened to Grothaus is actually one of the least know yet frequently researched benefits of reading. Besides entertainment or educational purposes, reading also greatly increases one’s mental and physical health.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have found that “reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience, which enable people to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective and with renewed understanding.”

“People who read find it easier to make decisions, plan, and prioritize, and this may be because they are more able to recognize that difficulty and setback are unavoidable aspects of human life.”

Findings by The Reading Agency in Europe also found that the “reading for pleasure in general can also help prevent conditions such as stress, depression, and dementia.” This is supported by the National Academy of Sciences, whose current studies state reading can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 250 percent.

Besides all this, the simple act of reading (which is not simple at all: even today, 775 million adults can’t do it), makes one more tolerant. Dr. Louise Billington, whose area of expertise is reading and health, found that “readers have a stronger and more engaged awareness of social issues and of cultural diversity than non-readers: their template of what the world is, is widened, and their place within it feels more secure.”

Of particular note, it appears not to matter what one reads, as long as one does. An ‘Archie’ comic can have the same mental health benefits as ‘War and Peace’ (comic books always get a bad rap, but they share a single factor with their more respected non-illustrated cousins — they still have to be read).

Those who want to crack open a book, or have a youngster read to or with him, can do so for the small price of a library card, which just so happens to be free.

Another hidden benefit or reading.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library