And let’s not forget the printed material. There could’ve been a simultaneous CIA leafleting-from-the-skies campaign over every inch of our house, dropping readable matter like Minnesota snow. Fantasy books, romance books, picture books, chapter books, RPG books, video game guides, coloring books, workbooks, catalogs, newspapers, magazines, comics, junk mail, recipes, assembly instructions, maps, notes, drafts, calendars, phone messages, receipts, grocery lists, homework. Wobbly stacks, sliding drifts, impenetrable walls of paper.
Maddening as it is — like, “I’d like to drop a match in it before my mom visits for Thanksgiving” maddening — this is more or less how I grew up, always with something to read no further than my elbow. And if it’s there, I can’t not read it, if you know what I mean. The words go in as fast as I see them, so as I gaze around, I’m constantly bombarded by info; I’m not conscious of the time it takes to scan text. The inability to glance past things without absorbing them might be overstimulating for some people. Hell, it might be overstimulating for me, I don’t know; I’ve always been like this, so I don’t know any differently.
In fact, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I was spelling and mastering simple sight words at 18 months, and I tested at a fourth-grade reading level when they tried to figure out what to do with me in kindergarten testing. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who were pretty relaxed about letting me chow through reading material far beyond my age level, and I satisfied my voracious appetite for it by simply keeping as many books going at once as I could. Even now, I’m rarely reading fewer than three or four separate titles at once.
Now I’m going to ask you to do something. Take all of what I’ve just described — in my home, in my youth — and erase it. Just use that little Photoshop tool and scrub every last piece of reading material out of the picture, like a neutron text bomb. Imagine a house messy with toys and clothes and dishes, but no books or magazines or newspapers or homework. Imagine a young child, hungry to learn, curious about the world, stuck gazing out a window or watching TV or sitting on a stoop. Try, just try, to imagine a setting with absolutely nothing to read.
To me, this is the purest science fiction. It’s the Twilight Zone. I can wrap my head around time travel, and quantum physics, and non-humanoid aliens, and a billion other things, but I literally can’t conjure the image of a home without books. I shudder to imagine growing up in one, and it is pure horror to imagine raising my kids in one.
I’ve been trying to imagine this all week, since I heard a statistic from a 2006 study publicized by the United Way. The study found that, in middle-income homes, the ratio of books per child is 13 books for each child, which is itself a ludicrously low number compared with the bounty to which I am accustomed. That won’t even fill a single shelf — they’ll keep falling over.
But in low-income neighborhoods, that number flips and sinks like the Poseidon. The ratio becomes only one book for every THREE HUNDRED CHILDREN. Let me rephrase: one poor child gets one book, and 299 poor children get none. No books. Zero. Inconceivable.
My kids’ school has about 450 children. If this statistic extended into that setting, the school in that low-income neighborhood would have two books. But at least in a school, those two books would get passed around. Households don’t usually do that, so that one book doesn’t make its way around among the 300 kids. The other 299 just do without.
My first impulse, of course, is to go directly into the boys’ bedroom with a trash bag and sweep up every single book they haven’t read in the last two weeks, and drive down to the poor neighborhoods and just start handing out books. I know that’s not practical, and I know there are groups designed to put books into exactly the hands that need them most. You can bet your backside I’ve been doing research into exactly which groups can use exactly which books, and how to make those donations — if I find anything beyond United Way that’s available on a national level, I’ll post it in comments.
Ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith as the harried bank teller who just wants time to read his book without his boss or his wife interrupting him? That episode’s what I named this post after. Eventually, he gets the time and the books, along with a cruel, ironic twist. But imagine if you had the time, and the desire to read, but no books. That episode’s playing all day, every day.
NB — Another point worth making: lack of access to books means lack of access to ideas that empower people to change their circumstances. Often, the ideas that motivate people to change their lives are found in banned books, which are even harder to access if you depend on schools and libraries, rather than your own purchasing power.
The Uprise Books Project aims to change that by putting free copies of banned books in the hands of impoverished and at-risk youth, exposing them to radical, perspective-shifting ideas. You can learn more and support the project here: http://www.uprisebooks.org/about/.