Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Importance of Literacy in My Life, and Yours

by Wiley Cash

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood called Forest Brook in Gastonia, North Carolina. Forest Brook was everything a kid could want in a neighborhood; it was full of both forests and brooks, and even now when I whisper the name, I feel just as much mystery and excitement as I did when I was ten years old. My younger brother and I spent our childhoods riding our bikes on dirt paths, wading through creeks, climbing up trees, and performing all the dangerous feats boys attempt when they grow up in a neighborhood like ours. Even though we spent a lot of time playing outside, we spent just as much time reading and being read to by our mom.

My parents’ second story bedroom windows looked out over an expanse of field behind our house. Dense woods bordered the field on either side. At that time, if you would’ve walked through the field for about two miles you would’ve eventually found yourself in a nice, upper-class neighborhood with a country club where my brother and I would eventually work as lifeguards. Just past the golf course that ringed the club was a tiny municipal airport with a beacon light that could be seen from my parents’ bedroom windows.

At night, after we’d taken our baths and before we’d said our prayers, my brother and I would sit in our mom’s lap in an old wicker rocking chair while she read to us. This ritual probably started when I was around three years old, and I would guess that I climbed down out of that rocking chair for the last time when I was six – only because I was too big to be rocked without my feet touching the floor, not because I no longer wanted my mom to read to me. After that I’d sit on my parents’ bed and listen while my mom read out loud and rocked my brother, who would climb down from that chair for the final time just a few years after me and join me on the bed, our mom still in the rocker, reading to us.

Those are very comforting memories: the sound of my mother’s voice close to my ear while she rocked me when I was small or drifting across the room to where I sat on the bed once I was older; the smell of Dial soap on my clean skin and the scent of the summer-warmed window panes as they cooled against the night air; the sound of chirping crickets lifting from the field behind our house. I remember these things as if they still take place each night; in my mind, maybe they do. I also have a clear memory of staring out the window and watching the beacon light at the airport as it revolved atop the tower, its beam strafing the field behind our house with a faint glow before disappearing, only to reappear seconds later. The beacon light was hypnotic; it lulled me to sleep more than the crickets or the rocking or the sound of my mom’s voice as it grew quieter and quieter while our eyelids grew heavier.

When I was twenty, my parents left our home in Gastonia and moved to the beach at Oak Island, North Carolina, roughly five hours east of where I’d grown up. A bridge connects Oak Island to the mainland, and from the bridge you can see the Caswell Beach lighthouse at the eastern end of the island. Not long after they’d moved, I was crossing the bridge with my mom at dusk; the lighthouse’s beam was just barely visible against the darkening sky. My mom looked at the lighthouse, and then she turned and looked at me.

“Just think,” she said, “whenever you see the lighthouse, you’ll know you’re almost home.”

I knew what she meant, and I appreciated the sentiment, but I knew that I’d never think of Oak Island as home, regardless of its beauty or the beauty of its landmarks. I still think of home as being farther west in North Carolina, at the edge of a little field in a neighborhood dotted with forests and brooks where a beacon light shines through the bedroom window while my mother reads stories to my brother and me.

Whenever I read, I may not always recall the sound of my mother’s voice or the sensation of being rocked, but I always feel the same safety and comfort I felt as a young boy watching the night creep across the field toward our house while the warm breeze rolled through the window screens. I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include reading.

Even with that said, it’s amazing how often I take my literacy for granted, especially in my day-to-day life at the grocery store where I read labels on products, at the pharmacy where I read warnings on medicine, and at the doctor’s office where I read pamphlets and information about what may or may not be ailing me. I tend to think of my reading life as something I nurture in private, something I use to escape. But I’d be wrong to think of it this way; reading is something I use to survive, and if you’re reading this now, then you use reading to survive as well.

As an author who’s just published my first novel, I’m aware that reading has given me a job. But as an adult who uses my literacy each and every day, I’m aware that reading has given me the ability to thrive in a very complicated world. A 2003 federal study found that one in seven adults don’t possess the literacy skills to read beyond the level required of a children’s picture book. I can’t fathom the fact that so many people have never had the pleasure of opening a novel and escaping their everyday lives. Even more daunting and sobering is the reality that these people’s everyday lives are complicated by illiteracy; tasks that we take for granted – going to the grocery store, buying a plane ticket, writing a letter of complaint – are endlessly and unnecessarily complicated.

My wife and I spent the past few months searching for a way to give back to a reading community that has allowed my dream of being a published author to come true. The answer became clear one day after I opened UNCA Today, the alumni magazine of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. The magazine had profiled Amanda Edwards, a woman who’d been a good friend of mine while we were students at UNCA. Amanda is the Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County in Asheville, North Carolina. I read the profile on Amanda, and then I called her about ways my wife and I could contribute to the amazing work the council is doing in Buncombe County. I began researching literacy programs throughout North and South Carolina, and I was shocked by what I discovered. According to the 2003 study, in North Carolina 14% of adults struggle with basic reading skills; the rate climbs slightly to 15% in South Carolina. On the bright side, I discovered that in many cities it costs as little as $25 to buy the materials that will teach an adult how to read. I can’t imagine a better investment in the future of an individual, a community, or a city. Think about what $50 or $100 could do for men and women in your community; then think about what $1,000 could do. With that in mind, my wife and I have decided that we want to raise thousands of dollars for literacy projects and public libraries throughout North and South Carolina, but we need your help.

Beginning on May 14, my publisher, William Morrow, is sending me on a fifteen-city tour throughout North and South Carolina where I’ll be holding events at some of the finest independent bookstores in the country. At almost all of these events, my wife and I will be donating a portion of the proceeds from book sales to local literacy projects and public libraries, and we’ll be encouraging booksellers and the public to give what they can as well. I’m proud that we’ll be partnering with the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, the group that inspired this idea, and I’m especially proud that we’ll be partnering with the Gaston County Public Library in Gastonia, North Carolina, where I received my first library card on the day I turned six.

I can never repay the gift the reading community has given me – for the memories of those nights in my parents’ bedroom when my mom read to us, for the times in my life that were so hectic or horrible that reading was the only thing I could do to escape – but this is a start.

If you’re interested in stopping by one of our events or learning more about the organizations we’re working with, please check out the tour schedule here. If you can’t come to an event, but you’d like to make a donation, please feel free to contact any of these organizations listed here or the literacy council or public library in your community.

In the meantime, read to your kids, read to other people’s kids, and, if you don’t think you’re too old to enjoy it, have someone read to you. It’s up to them whether or not they want to rock you to sleep while they do it.


  1. This is great, Wiley. I spent a while doing literacy tutoring with adults and it's hard work, but not as hard as the work those adults are doing as students. I hope you'll help raise lots of funds for these programs. I was just researching organizations whose work has an impact on the issues my book touches on last night. Funny timing. Good timing.

  2. Great post. One thing we did with our kids (and I stole the idea from my sister) is that if I finished eating before my kids (which I always did), I would pull out a book and read to them as they finished eating. I also found that audio books on car trips were a wonderful alternative to dvd players and hand held video games. Thanks to JK Rowling we drove 14 hours from NJ to Chicago with my kids totally involved in an audio book.)

  3. Wonderful story about your childhood and how books influenced. Your mother has told me a lot of very nice things about you and I can see your kindness in the things you write.

    When my children were in school I volunteer one day a week in the library at their school. I loved reading to my children when they were little and now to my grandsons.

    Thank you for writing such a page turner; you are very talented. A Land Kinder than Home is on my read again list.

  4. Fabulous reminder of what it's all about. I read to my son--every night--until he turned sixteen. And, because of him, I discovered many fabulous authors including Terry Pratchett.

  5. Howdy Wiley: What a wonderful post. Reading has been as important to me as breathing. I can't remember a time when I didn't have at least three books on my bookcase waiting their turn to be read. I asked my mother at what age did I become interested in books? She replied I popped out of her womb, looked at the doctor and said "NEVERMORE". I've been an avid reader ever since,I turned seventy last Dec., that's a lotta books Dude!