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Literacy: A Dying Art?

Updated on July 24, 2019
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Arlon Stubbe has published 21 books as an independent author, 4 non-fiction and 17 novels. He reads 25-30 books each year.

Recent Encounters of the Discouraging Kind

Last Saturday (7.20.19) I participated in a local authors’ book festival, the 5thannual outing for this group of writers. Normally held outside in a city park, this year we moved inside the area high school in hopes of escaping the rain (we did!) and encouraging more people to browse and purchase books—since the new location is closer to the small town where the event is hosted.

Well, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. I counted exactly four persons who came to see what we had to offer, and except for purchases made by a few authors or their spouses, I’m not sure any of our books were sold, but those four idle hours prompted some questions among those of us who participated in that event.

Some Pertinent Questions:

  1. Aren’t people reading anymore?
  2. Is it just e-books that find an audience nowadays? [all my books are available in both Kindle and paperback versions, the former producing a steady but quite small trickle of royalties each month, so if someone’s getting rich from e-books, it’s not me!
  3. Is the quality of our writing or published products lacking somehow? [One author complimented me on both the covers and content of my books, and several local authors of children’s books do outstanding work—including one woman who teaches Spanish and produces books for children in which the text alternates between Spanish and English. Another author writes detailed histories of her own Civil War ancestors, and still another Children’s writer has created her own ‘mouse’ character and even wears large Mouse Ears to every event! To no avail.]
  4. Is the level of people’s education and their range of interests narrowing? One woman who actually came to see our displays looked at my books and asked, “What are these? Poems or novels?” [even though a sign on the table said ‘Novels – Contemporary fiction – Poems)So I answered “Both” and described several works, including a historical novel based on the life and career of Niccolò Paganini. She asked, “Who’s that?” and I explained he was a famous violinist rumored to have struck a deal with the Devil, and she said, “Never heard of him.” Then, as she walked away, her final comment was—“I never read books anyway.”

The Issue at hand

All these experiences call to mind a discussion my wife and I have had often, one that concerns communication these days. It seems that one-on-one conversations about significant topics seldom happen anymore. For instance, when was the last time you got a handwritten letter from anyone, or even a postcard? When you send a gift for a birthday or Christmas, do you ever get a handwritten thank-you note back from the recipient—even a short notice that it arrived? Probably not. [Thank heavens for ‘tracking numbers’ from the USPS and other carriers!] And if an invitation to a party or wedding comes to you, is it by ‘snail mail’—or on-line, with a prompt to respond in kind? Even gift lists for weddings and baby showers are on-line now, since stores are beginning to disappear.

A Prime Example

A few years back. I sent our twelve-year-old grandson a handwritten letter, and his mother later told me she had to read it to him because “he couldn’t make out all those funny curly lines.” [That is, he doesn’t read or write in cursive, since most schools stopped teaching that skill some time ago!] Good luck to any future historians who can’t read the journals of historic figures, or go through old records of births, marriages and deaths kept in churches and courthouses.

A Disclaimer, and Description of Current Reality

These days, digital is where it’s at, and although I have to admit I still own a flip phone, since I’m only interested in making and receiving phone calls rather than sending and receiving text messages or photos (although my phone actually does both), I’m not a cultural dinosaur just yet. After all, I’ve written, formatted, and produced 15 of my own books, designed their covers and submitted e-book versions of each work.

Still, it does seem as if person-to-person contact these days is limited to 280 characters at best, plus an emoji or twoif you’re lucky! One year when my wife and I were in Las Vegas, I actually had another tourist physically run into me because he was checking out the local scenes through the view finder of his camera instead of just looking around him! [I used that kind of event later on as part of a museum scene in one of my more recent books, titled IN SYNC]. I suspect you’ve had that same experience in an area shopping mall, that is. if yours hasn’t closed down yet.

Things to Consider

All of the above makes me wonder where we’re headed as a society. Will people have real conversations about important topics anymore? Are people still interested in reading what others write, or is that why so many newspapers and magazines die off? New magazines do keep popping up, but often they’re from Great Britain, Canada, or Australia. And . . . is it just me, or have you noticed that every new hardcover book that’s released (even ones by a first-time author) seem to tout a banner that proclaims, “New York Times Bestseller”though it’s just now gone on sale? Talk about ‘greasing the skids.’

Maybe someday people will communicate the way the Egyptians and other ancient societies did long ago, using only cuneiform characters or pictographs. Maybe we’re already doing that, via text messages. At least we’re headed in that direction, it seems. But, I for one don’t want to lose some of the time-tested ways of telling stories, sharing news and exchanging ideas. So, let’s hear it for person-to-person contacts, and everyone being able to read and write, using many forms of exchange. Otherwise, the richness of literature, history and culture will suffer.

A 'To-Do' Suggestion:

Put down your iPhone or iPad (unless it’s an e-book you’re looking at) and pick up a book— or a heavy-duty magazine like The Atlantic or The New Yorker.

It’ll do you good.


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