Archive for the 'literacy / right to read' Category

Are you a page turner or a button pusher?

“‘[M]ateriality matters.’ The reading experience includes manual activities and haptic perceptions (what the skin and muscles and joints register), and so as activities and perceptions of that kind are changed from one kind of reading experience to another because of the object, the reading experience, too, will change.”

There’s an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that compares reading, especially textbook reading, to reading a physical, printed, ink-on-paper book. Conclusion? One effect . . . is that the digital text makes us read “in a shallower, less focused way.” That, I think, is a critical factor for all writers to consider as they write both for print and for on-screen media. JK


Some thoughts about e-reading

Writing in the New York Times,  Verlyn Klinkenborg sings the praises both of electronic and traditionally produced ink-on-paper books. Of printed books, he appreciates that  “[t]hey do nothing. . .what I really love is their inertness. . .The book is the book, whereas, in electronic formats, the book often seems to be merely the text.”

Regarding e-books, Klinkenborg confesses, “The truth is that I need. . .help to keep reading, especially as much as I always have. The question isn’t what will books become in a world of electronic reading. The question is what will become of the readers we’ve been—quiet, thoughtful, patient, abstracted—in a world where interactive can be too tempting to ignore.”

Are there so many bells-and-whistles distractions inherent in electronic books that our abilities as readers are diminished? JK

Johnny still can’t read

Back in the dark ages of my early career, a few decades ago, I taught “survival skills” language arts (how to read newspaper classified ads, product instructions, job applications) in Ohio’s only maximum security prison. It was a terrible place—think “The Shawshank Redemption”—that opened in the early 1830s; once housed 28 of the Civil War’s Morgan’s Raiders and, 35 years later, writer O. Henry and then Dr. Sam Sheppard in 1954; and was first condemned as uninhabitable in 1902 and again in 1950. In the 1960s it remained open and still accommodated well over 5,000 inmates in an institution originally built for a maximum population of 1,200. It’s long gone now, replaced after a century and a half of “service” by—what else?—a parking lot.

The illiteracy rate at the Ohio Penitentiary in the sixties was around 40 percent, meaning more than 800 incarcerated men could do little more than sign their names. About 25 percent were hard pressed to tell one letter from another. Many were desperate to learn to read. I suspect the situation may be worse today; it’s certainly no better.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor indicates our nation’s literacy statistics today remain disturbingly low: “About 30 million people—14 percent of the U.S. population 16 and older—have trouble with basic reading and writing. ” Let’s hope for all our sakes that we’ll soon see an end to the misbegotten and poorly administered,  teach-to-the-test No Child Left Behind initiative of recent years. Congress is now revising “the Workforce Investment Act, which includes a section to help fund adult literacy and basic education programs.”

It wouldn’t hurt to let your representatives and senators know how badly schools all over the country need meaningful reform. I’m going to. JK

“I read more . . . but I understand less.”

John Keilman, once a voracious reader of books, used to lose himself in novels seemingly written by the pound. Now he finds his mind wandering after just a few pages.

Keilman’s patience runs out, and he can’t sustain interest long enough to plow through anything much longer than a text message. Although he reads all the time, the words are on screen: BlackBerry, Google, Kindle, Twitter, and iPhone vie for his attention, and he no longer has the endurance of a long-distance reader. Asking, “Is the novel too much for [a] tweet-addled brain?” Keilman cites research showing that the immediacy of online reading may actually alter the brain’s ability to absorb information. He wonders “what will happen to us when we stop reading books not because we don’t want to, but because we can’t.” JK

Is the Internet destroying reading?

Some of us book lovers tend to consider those who get most of their information online to be nonreaders. We especially deplore the fact that many kids and teens turn to the Internet first for fun, facts, and fundamentals. Given a choice, would I first consult the S volume of my encyclopedia or click on Wikipedia to learn about Swaziland? Because I have access to both, I’d probably use both. But if I wanted to find out the latest innovations in laser surgery, I’d go online because I would likely find the most up-to-date information.

I’m fortunate that I’m equally comfortable in front of a book or a computer screen. Many kids, however, go straight to the computer, and a lot of parents are beginning to wonder if this is creating a generation of  nonreaders. Reading about a subject on the Internet is different from reading about it in a book. The Internet’s style often uses short sentences, bulleted lists, outline formats. Someone reading online expects information to be immediately accessible, to the point, and short. Mostly short. Someone reading a book expects more narrative, greater description, and a developed use of language.

Does this mean that Internet readers never really appreciate or even learn how to use descriptive language to weave a beginning, a middle, and an end into a clear idea or understandable document? Even more important, does the shortcut style of Internet sites prevent users from really learning how to read and write full sentences and logical paragraphs?

These questions are “at the heart of a passionate debate about what it means to read in the digital age. The discussion is playing out among educational policy makers and reading experts around the world and within groups like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.” Read more.

I have to say that I agree with the points the experts make. We all must value different kinds of reading for different kinds of reasons. And both the Internet and a good book have their places in our increasingly complex world. AK

109,263 reasons why kids can’t do arithmetic

The San Jose Mercury News reports that the Texas Board of Education in November was concerned to find that elementary math textbooks the state selected for use in its schools next year contain 109, 263 errors. Seventy-nine percent–86,000!–of those errors occurred in books produced by Houghton Mifflin, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of educational materials. Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, drew laughter from his fellow board members when he asked, “How can you make 86,000 errors in your textbooks? How do you do that?”

The publishers vowed to correct the mistakes by spring–well before school begins next fall. They’d better. The state has warned them they’ll impose fines of as much as $5,000 apiece for errors that make it through to finished books. JK

“Reading books transforms people’s lives.”

So says Dana Gioia, National Endowment for the Arts chairperson. She adds, “Electronic media, such as television and computers, are threatening the printed word . . . As more and more competing media are introduced into kids’ lives, adults’ lives, these things make it more difficult to find the time to read.”

According to, quoting a study completed by the NEA, “Americans aged 15 to 24 on average spend two hours a day watching TV and only seven minutes on leisure reading, reducing their chances for high-paying jobs and community service'”

So there you have it: The time you, your child, or your grandchild spends reading translates directly into greater earning power. JK

Libraries of tomorrow . . . today

Imagine having instant access to 15 million books! That’s the plan once Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo scan entire libraries of books, compile and organize them, and make them available through their Web sites.

The widest possible dissemination of knowledge is always a good thing, right? Or is it?

The New York Times says: “Although Google is making public-domain books readily available to individuals who wish to download them, [Brewster Kahle, founder and director of the Internet Archive,] and others worry about the possible implications of having one company store and distribute so much public-domain content.

“‘Scanning the great libraries is a wonderful idea, but if only one corporation controls access to this digital collection, we’ll have handed too much control to a private entity,’ Mr. Kahle said.

“The Open Content Alliance, he said, ‘is fundamentally different, coming from a community project to build joint collections that can be used by everyone in different ways.’

“Mr. Kahle’s group focuses on out-of-copyright books, mostly those published in 1922 or earlier. Google scans copyrighted works as well, but it does not allow users to read the full text of those books online, and it allows publishers to opt out of the program.”

This is an issue of major importance to authors (royalties, distribution); domestic and foreign researchers (access, security); public and private libraries (costs, collections); publishers (copyright, piracy). My guess is that a lot of lawyers have a lot of work ahead of them. JK

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Watch the short movie at Open Content Alliance to see how books can be accessed through internet storage systems. The film also describes the process for creating a “ten-minute book,” that is, a bound book printed on-site at a library from down-loaded files.

A Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew walk into a library . . .

Suppose Tom Cruise were to be busted for a federal offense and packed off to prison. Now suppose that during his incarceration, Tom decided that he’d like to delve more deeply into Scientology, his avowed religion, and the life of its founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Sorry, Tom. You’re out of luck.

Under a provision of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) new Standardized Chapel Library Project (SCLP), only “about 150 items for each of 20 religions or religious categories” may now be shelved in any federal detention facility, according to the New York Times. Is Scientology one of the named religions? Nope.

Here are the approved religions, as listed by Justice Fellowship.

• Baha’i
• Buddhist
• Catholic
• Hindu
• Islam
• Jehovah’s Witness
• Judaism
• Messianic
• Mormon
• Native American
• Orthodox
• Pagan
• Protestant
• Rastafarian
• Sikh
• Yoruba
• Miscellaneous Religions

Might Scientology fall under the last entry? How about Zoroastrianism, or Shintoism, or Atheism, or Ethical Culture. Who knows? The bureau won’t say, nor will it release its list of book choices publicly. But it has sent the list to the administrators of its penal institutions. The Times quotes a Muslim inmate at the minimum security Federal Prison Camp in Otisville, New York: “[He] said his chaplain showed up in the chapel library with garbage bags one day last spring and removed ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of volumes. The only thing left on the sole shelf devoted to Islam was a Koran and a few volumes of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.”

Do other religions fare better? Not Judaism, certainly. Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, says the Otisville Prison saw three-quarters of its Jewish books disappear, “ranging from the Zohar [interpretations of the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy] to the works of 12th-century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Apparently the BOP considers it too risky to allow inmates to read Maimonides’ maxim, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death,” or his warning against judges who may convict supposed wrongdoers according to “caprice.” Dangerous stuff, that.

Gerson explains that “[f]ew would dispute that prison security and the prevention of terrorism are compelling state interests . . . in the spring of 2004, the inspector general of the Justice Department issued a report warning of radical Islamist influence in American prisons.” Trashing long established library collections is not the answer, however; it’s going after gnats with a shotgun. Gerson quotes David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union: “The traditional remedy has been to remove specific books that incite violence. This policy [SCLP] turns that on its head. Anything not on their short, restrictive is prohibited.”

A class action law suit against the bureau has been filed by three Otisville inmates, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian; it has had an immediate and curious effect: reactions of outrage from both the religious and political left and the right. Take a look:
Republican Study Committee, a caucus of very conservative Republicans: “We must ensure that in America the federal government is not the undue arbiter of what may or may not be read by our citizens.”
Sojourners, a progressive evangelical Christian group: “Imagine walking into your local library, only to discover that the religion section has been decimated—purged of books even by such prominent theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth . . That’s exactly what’s happening right now to inmates in federal prisons.”
• Aleph Institute, a Jewish group: “No religious library book that is otherwise acceptable should be removed from the prison library stacks because it surpasses an artificial numerical limitation.”
Atheist Diaries, a blog about the separation of church and state: “It is taking books from prisoners on the slim chance they will help prisons become a recruiting ground for terrorist groups; how long till books are banned from the general public for the same reasons?”
Prison Fellowship, a Christian prisoner and family ministry: “The BOP claims that this policy is the result of Congressional concern about the growth of radical Islam in prisons. [We believe] that this policy is not what Congress intended.”
American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach topics related to religion: “Many AAR members find the Standardized Chapel Library Project highly problematic.”

So who’s making these decisions; who are the arbiters of religious propriety for the 199,485 prisoners currently incarcerated by the Bureau of Prisons? Well . . . it’s kind of hard to find out.

Traci Billingsley, a BOP spokesperson, told Laurie Goodstein of the Times, that the bureau “relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles . . . The lists will be expanded in October, and there will be occasional updates.” Goodstein added that “the identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public,” but she was told by the BOP that they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved. The AAR denied all of these assertions.

The Post’s Gerson sums it up best: “In today’s American prisons—often places ruled by despair—religion is one of the few sources of hope, offering the assurance of a love stronger than past offenses, the possibility of freedom from hatred and compulsion even within prison walls, the prospect of a fresh start that begins only in the soul. This influence should be praised and accommodated instead of singled out for unreasonable burdens—especially by an administration publicly committed to promoting faith-based answers to social problems.”

If I were Tom Cruise, I’d walk the straight and narrow. Or buy my own copy of Dyanetics. JK