The right to read: the freedom of words

I have been thinking a lot about words this week. Our whole lives are dominated by our ability to communicate. Whether digitally or in the non-digital world our ability to belong and to find a place in modern society is for many conditioned by the extent to which they are comfortable with words, writing and language. For those who struggle with words, whether because of disability or any other reason, our dependency upon words can be a very real struggle. But there are also countless millions whose inability to use words and specifically to be able to read or write puts them at an acute disadvantage.

I have probably reached a stage in life in which I am comfortable with words and language and even enjoy the experience, not least as I have reflected in this blog before in the use of words in poetry and in literature. It was not always thus. As someone whose first language was not English but rather a strange mixture of twin-speak and Gaelic, I initially struggled both with spoken English and most certainly with written English. Years of attending Speech and Language therapy gave me the confidence to be able to ‘speak’ and to write. As well as that more formal support, I was also fortunate to have had in my life a rather indomitable ex-headteacher who I had as a Hebridean great aunt. I still remember and have somewhere lost in my belongings the letters I wrote to her as a child on an almost fortnightly basis and having said letters returned ‘corrected’ in red ink but with the added bonus of some money to spend! I’m not quite sure what was the greater motivator – the improving English or the purchase power of a few pennies!

This coming week contains two days which are focussed on both the enjoyment which words can bring but also the challenge of not being able to be comfortable in a world of words.

The first of these days is Tuesday which is this year as every September 6th Read a Book Day. It is an annual awareness day that encourages all of us to take a break and get reading, ‘either curled up on the sofa or with family and friends.’ It is designed to encourage both the old and the new reader to discover or re-discover the joys which can come from reading. The best novels and works of fiction help to stretch our horizons to worlds beyond our experience and take us on journeys of the imagination into realms of thought and mind, discovery and delight, which we could have previously not thought of.

In these hectic and challenging times, it is for many people a very necessary escape to slow the rhythm of the day and to be able to read. But of course, in times of real economic challenge and constraint buying a book or purchasing a download may be the last thing on someone’s mind or budget. It was a sad indication of the pandemic the number of libraries that had to reduce hours and have shut down or not re-opened. Scotland has had a long tradition of enabling the gift of reading to be something experienced by all through our national Library system free at the point of use. It is to the impoverishment of communities, our children and adults, and our wider aspirations as a society if the ability of people to ‘read a book’ becomes limited to those who can afford to do so. There are especial benefits to older people in being supported to continue reading ( not least as visual impairments develop), and amongst these are the ability reading frequently gives to an individual to keep memory active, help to increase focus and concentration and the evidence that frequent reading slows cognitive decline such as dementia. The availability of reading opportunities is a matter of public health not leisure priority.

The second day which in the coming week touches on these issues is International Literacy Day, which is celebrated on the 8th September, and which under the auspices of the UN has been going for over 50 years. Illiteracy remains a global problem and it is estimated that there are more than 750 million adults around the world who cannot read. But it is an issue which is right around the corner on our own doorstep in Scotland.

According to a major study:

  • 3% of the Scottish working age population have a level of literacies that is recognised internationally as appropriate for a contemporary society;
  • around one quarter of the Scottish population (26.7%) may face occasional challenges and constrained opportunities due to their literacies difficulties, but will generally cope with their day-to-day lives; and
  • within this quarter of the population, 3.6% (one person in 28) face serious challenges in their literacies practices.

(see a fuller report at BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT – Adult Literacies in Scotland 2020: Strategic guidance – gov.scot (www.gov.scot) )

Illiteracy is something that bedevils so many people and limits their ability to contribute, participate and engage as full citizens of our communities. As the UN states not being able to read a prescription bottle, or a road sign, a menu in a restaurant, a voting ballot or the instructions on an item of food – are all activities which cause both harm and limitation. It is not for nothing that literacy is deemed internationally to be a human right.

To be able to read grants individual freedom, to be denied the opportunity of literacy by a lack of focus or priority in any society removes the ability to be a free citizen in any community. So as those of us fortunate to read grab a chance to do just that this week, perhaps with children or grandchildren, friends and partners, then let us all strive to ensure that it is a gift shared with all around us.

The so-called American ‘People’s Poet’ Edgar Albert Guest who championed literacy and the ability to read, sums it up well:

‘Good books are friendly things to own.

If you are busy they will wait.

They will not call you on the phone

Or wake you if the hour is late.

They stand together row by row,

Upon the low shelf or the high.

But if you’re lonesome this you know:

You have a friend or two nearby.

 

The fellowship of books is real.

They’re never noisy when you’re still.

They won’t disturb you at your meal.

They’ll comfort you when you are ill.

The lonesome hours they’ll always share.

When slighted they will not complain.

And though for them you’ve ceased to care

Your constant friends they’ll still remain.

 

Good books your faults will never see

Or tell about them round the town.

If you would have their company

You merely have to take them down.

They’ll help you pass the time away,

They’ll counsel give if that you need.

He has true friends for night and day

Who has a few good books to read.’

 

Edgar Albert Guest https://allpoetry.com/Good-Books

 

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 3rd September 2022 by donald.macaskill