Stack of Books Still Life, PLR '98

Stack of Books Still Life, PLR '98

“The person who doesn’t read is no better off than the person who can’t read.”  -Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

I work nights until 1:00AM. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I have to read is my digital alarm clock. I say read because about as much effort goes into understanding whether I should get up now and how much more time can I really spare in bed, as goes into reading any college text book. What day is this? What class? Do I need to pack anything? Can I afford to skip breakfast? If I push the “snooze” button I may get up earlier, but if I reset the alarm I’ll get more restful sleep…. These are only some of the problem solving skills I use to interpret the meaning behind the symbol “8:00AM.” 

Once awake my mind is able to operate on a higher level. I check my e-mail first thing in the morning. Although by now it is a simple routine, I am required to know computer lingo in order to even get to my mail. This is not just a matter of knowing how to write and read letters; this simple communication requires learning a new literacy code. This important tool allows me to efficiently communicate with my friends and take care of simple business with professors and peers.

Eventually I make my way to class. Though varied, college courses usually have some form of taking notes. Professors usually write key terms on overheads or the chalkboard. It is important to learn to understand how these terms guide a lecture in order to write good notes. This aspect of learning requires more than just reading and writing; it is a developed skill. You need to learn the balance; you can’t write everything said, nor do you want to overburden yourself when it comes to studying, but if you want to do well in the class, you must write down the essential information. This literacy activity is not just copying a literal list of facts; it requires interpretive and critical thinking,

At some point during the day I have to eat, and often I’m forced to buy food at a restaurant. On this particular day, I was invited out to dinner with my family, including my Spanish speaking sister-in-law who is still learning our language; I was impressed with how difficult ordering her meal was. She was dependent upon the rest of the family to get what she really wanted. Although ordering a meal doesn’t require much thought (unless the food is great!), not knowing how to read the language brings a dimension of difficulty to it that we often take for granted. I imagine how difficult life must be for those who missed the opportunity to learn how to read. It is not just a world of books and ideas nonreaders are missing, but simple tasks we take for granted, like ordering food, become difficult burdens that can often be dangerous, like understanding the instructions for medications.

Before I begin my studying for the evening, I try to put God first and read a chapter from the Bible. These are words I am familiar with by now, and more often this exercise is less a study and more of a reminder of God’s truth and the comfort he brings to my life. Having this time of reflection and self-evaluation in God gives me strength to handle the struggles of the day. Though many do not choose this path, I don’t know where I would be with the ability to study God’s Word. It is the bread for my soul, the living water for my spirit. It is the Word who was made flesh; the Truth in parable, poetry and law giving me inspiration to persevere and live as righteously as I can.

Later I give myself over to my homework. Being an English Education major, I read a little bit of everything on any given night. Poetry is something to be felt as well as read. It is often a mystery to be solved by close reading and looking between the lines. There is definitely creative thinking needed when reading any type of verse, but often poetry is best when it is just absorbed. Likewise, when I’m reading a story, I find I am better able to understand and evaluate it if I simply let myself indulge in it as the characters carry me through the plot with their speech and actions. Typically, I don’t do much conscious analysis of fiction until the experience is over, but that is my style. Reading text books and scholarly journals, however, requires a lot of effort on my part. This is when sight words and contextual analysis become important for me. I find in order to understand the text fully, I need to look ahead in each chapter and read subtitles and glance at bold faced words and think about any quotes emphasized to get a sense of the topic and main idea I’m reading about before I dive in. Also, if there are pictures or graphs, I usually read them before I begin the swim through the letters and ideas of the text. It is easy for me to drift when I’m reading texts, so getting the preview and knowing the direction the author is going in helps me stay focused and increases my comprehension. 

I work the night shift as a security guard. At my site, we joke that the only skills you need to do the job is to have a warm body and a pulse, but literacy is a requirement. We receive written orders, the dayshift supervisor communicates with us by writing notes, and we are required to write out a Daily Activity Report. Because of college, I am required to study texts in depth, so it is easy for me to take for granted the simple things in life that require literacy and to lose touch with how necessary the basic skills of reading comprehension really are. Literacy is essential for success in our modern society. Children who are read to at a young age and encouraged to read throughout their lives will gain opportunities that their peers who are neglected will have to work twice as hard to achieve. Teaching kids how to approach a text book or a novel or a poem, teaching them how to evaluate and receive knowledge, meaning and experience from words, will ultimately give them the skills they need to approach life with better understanding and therefore receive a greater knowledge and deeper meaning from their own experiences, and that is wisdom. Education is not required to gain wisdom, but the ability to read gives one access to the wisdom and experience of all the ancients who have gone before.

Peter L Richardson
(updated 7/14/11)

What’s in a word? What’s in a rhyme?
Is it the silent tick-tick of time?
Are they definition, description or meaning?
Are they truth, fact or seeming?
A word is empty without sight.
The sun is darkness without light.

Peter L Richardson
spring 1997