What is literacy? And how can we change our views?

“Literacy can help societies heal, advance political processes and contribute to the common good.”

That’s a quote from UN  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. I thought it to be an appropriate musing for really any afternoon – but, for reasons unknown to me, those words found their way to me today.

It’s a brisk pre-autumn day in Cleveland. In my opinion, that’s the best kind of day. Strange patterns of clouds line the cerulean sky and the steady flow of traffic rounds out the auditory sense. It helps to have a delicious pumpkin ale on hand. I’m working a bottle of Blue Moon’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale.

Work is over for the week. Beer in hand. Sublime transmissions from a lowly society accepted.

Getting back to the point, however, it seems to me that literacy is a topic seldom brought up in discussion these days. Outside of structural adjustment programs in East Africa, for instance, literacy seems to be a topic relegated to the past, to a time when “literacy” as an idea was still novel. (Rule of thumb: Love the puns.)

I’m sure that on some futuristic plane, literacy involves quite different notions. There’s the concept of rapid-fire communication via txt msg, the possibility of telepathic discourse, the ability to instantaneously read the logarithmic equations that make society’s serendipitous events not so serendipitous and so on. But, for now, literacy as it stands is as critical as ever.

It’s an age of transparency. Or so they would have you believe. In fact, it’s an age of blizzards and typhoons. What once was an idyllic landscape is now a raging storm – and you, weary traveler, must sift through the seaweed to find the Truth.

The Internet, in all its life-changing phenomena, has spurred a shift backwards. There’s something not quite right about all of this. Bludgeoned by the convenience of the Internet, people in the 21st century seem to be moving so fast that the contours of their lives create nothing more than a shadow of who they truly are. Social interactions take place online now, of course. (Didn’t you know?) What happens in the day-to-day rigors of society is merely something to bitch about on Facebook.

It’s laughable, in fact, how little the concept of reading seems to matter anymore. And  while the concept that a Hollywood blockbuster movie can fit tightly within the parameters of a compact disc is indeed fascinating, there seems to be much more to the fact that a single person’s pain, love and spirit can be found within the text of a book.

Fiction or not, there’s power in the page. And in an increasingly visual culture, there’s a profound simplicity that’s lost.

I’m currently reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. Goddamn, it’s a hell of a story. The reason I dove into it all is that David Fincher (a truly exceptional visionary) is bringing the books to the silver screen later this year. I’m sure I’ll be there, eager fan status in hand, but I wanted to understand the original idea beforehand.

Larsson’s ideas, informed by experiences in his own life, are nightmares into which immeasurable life has been breathed. It’s a series that, even though I haven’t finished it, is far too enticing to pass up.

On a less tangential plane, however, the topic of literacy should be in the back of everyone’s minds in the coming decades. It’s an idea that will change radically within all of our lifetimes. Some will argue that a positive change will occur, other will view the shift from the cynic’s point of view.

Wherever you may stand on the topic, it’s imperative to revisit the idea of literacy as you conceive of it.

What does literacy mean in the 21st century? What should it mean? How can that image change for the common good of all people? How does literacy manifest itself in my own city or region? And what can I do to change that?

Questions must always be asked. And as the sands move swiftly through the hourglass, the questions become ever more important.


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