By Jim Hagarty
Somebody realized a lot of people in North America can’t read and so now we have an illiteracy problem. Maybe we’ll do something about it.
Personally, I have a literacy problem. I can read very well. The problem is, I can’t stop.
Somewhere along the line after I’d learned my ABCs, I gave up reading for pleasure and information and started reading just to read. Like a gambler unable to walk by a slot machine or a glutton by a buffet, I can’t pass by a bunch of words without finding out what they say.
“Why don’t you just read what you want?” you might ask. That sounds simple except when you realize you can’t possibly know whether you want to read something until you have read it. You can’t do anything else with words except write them and read them. And the advantage the writer has is he already knows what the words he’s written say. You don’t. So, he’s got one up on you unless you read what he wrote.
It gets a hold of you. To illustrate: I sat down in my favourite coffee shop Wednesday night to read a newspaper and have a cup of coffee. Noticing my disappointment, the waitress broke it to me that the papers usually waiting there had been thrown out. “But,” she said, amused, “there is a department-store catalogue here.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, and I did. For the next half hour, I read about flannel shirts, winter coats and computers. It wasn’t Gone With The Wind, but it was entertaining enough. Did you know you can buy electric boot warmers?
I always read through the lottery literature a popular magazine sends me and all the information on breakfast cereal boxes. I read three or four newspapers a day and various magazines throughout the week. I’ve read through the manual to my television set and I read politicians’ pamphlets at the door.
And the posters in store windows.
I just finished reading a pamphlet on urinary tract problems in neutered male cats, a fascinating treatise. I read up all the old journals in doctors’ offices and barbershops and have been known to lose my place in the haircut line while engrossed in an ancient newsmagazine. I read in the bathtub and on other fixtures in the bathroom. I read at the kitchen table during meals. I read in bed and sometimes I go out on the front porch and read outside. I read on buses, in restaurants and at the newstands in stores.
Basically, I’m a wordaholic. There, I said it. Sometimes when my system gets low, I just need a quick fix. A few hundred words about anything at all, to relax me again. A paragraph or two. A couple of sentences. A hasty browse through some junk mail.
On a boring Sunday afternoon, on my fourth time through the Saturday paper, I can even get all the way down to reading about the marital troubles of lesser-known actors as well as articles on preparing your lawnmower for winter. I read one this Sunday on how to remove stains from a concrete floor. I don’t even have any stains on my concrete floors. But, if I ever get any, just see how long they stick around.
It has been so long since the days when I couldn’t read, I have forgotten what it’s like to be illiterate. Except that I was a pretty happy guy back then. Maybe not reading about tragedies, turmoil and terrorists and problems, problems, problems, kept my mind freer for the odd uplifting thought that might want to float into it. As it is, where is there room in there for a pleasant idea?
Like the alcoholic who gets a job as a bartender to be close to a ready supply of booze, I made my living for decades serving up the very words I’m hooked on.
It’s The Curse Of The Grammar Book Demon.
And to think it all started with Dick and Jane. And their dog Spot. I never did like Spot. He was always running.