As a fiction writer, I spend a lot of time asking myself the question “what if?” And the other day, the what if on my mind was “what if I couldn’t read?”
I got to thinking that awful thought because of a recent article by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker, a review of a book on female literacy by Belinda Jack, of Oxford. Acocella’s article traces the history of female literacy from ancient times, and she talks about the kind of introspection that comes from reading, as well as how reading allows a person to learn about the world beyond his or her own experience. She writes:
“Without such introspection, women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore, they seemed stupid.”
This isn’t just a bygone mindset, obviously. In parts of the world today, notably in places like Pakistan, girls are kept from education by force. Just a little while ago, 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai was recently shot for the crime of advocating education for women. That’s how threatening it is to some men in primitive societies that a woman might become literate.
And so I thought, what would my life be like if I couldn’t read?
It’s actually hard to think it. Reading seems as natural to me as breathing. I can’t not read. When words are around, they catch my eye and just speak. And yet, I pushed my mind there. What if all those letters were like a foreign language to me? What if they were impenetrable?
My days, which now revolve around the written word, would be unrecognizable. In the modern world, especially, you can’t really maneuver most daily tasks without reading. I wouldn’t be able to drive, because I couldn’t read a sign. I wouldn’t be able to grocery shop very well. I wouldn’t be able to follow a recipe.
I also would likely have a shorter life. As many studies have reported, better education is tied to longer lifespan, and literacy especially is important to good health. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/health/31cons.html).
But on an even deeper level, I wouldn’t be me without reading. I wouldn’t know about the world outside my neighborhood, I wouldn’t have the fuel for all the thoughts and dreams that have shaped my life.
This, most of all, is why in primitive societies, both in the past and now, female literacy is so dangerous. Reading makes you ask questions. It gives you ideas; it expands the realm of the possible. Reading is power.
No wonder people kill and die for it. I thank God every day I was born into the richness of a culture where literacy is a given. I pray for a day when my next what if comes true: what if everyone could read? The world, I think, would be a nicer place.