Lip service to literacy fails to help

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Americans are both fat and illiterate.

That's the impression someone arriving from Planet X or even Canada would get.

Our obsession with weight is well established, obvious from the steady drumbeat of medical studies warning about the dangers of extra pounds, the multimillion-dollar diet industry and the news pictures of our favorite young female stars hollow-eyed in the grip of anorexia.

But, it doesn't really matter. Every American, young and old, today is heavier than ever.

As for reading, there should be no excuse for what is perceived as the fatal decline of books, the death rattle of fiction and the total capitulation to the computer because there are free literacy programs for every age coast to coast.

In the Pittsburgh region, I've counted at least a dozen local efforts, by nonprofits, businesses, community groups, service organizations and foundations.

(A worthwhile project by one of those foundations would be to organize the literacy groups, reduce redundant programs and make their various services widely known around the county.)

Nationally, the cause of literacy is becoming one of those all-purpose excuses to sell a book or produce a glitzy TV program.

Starbucks' recent announcement that it was offering Mitch Albom's upcoming sure best-selling novel, "For One More Day," along with its cappuccino was solemnly legitimized by the coffee chain's generosity to a preschool literacy program.

It will donate a whopping $1 for each $21.95 book sold to Jumpstart, a Boston-based nonprofit that organizes preschool education programs.

The company credits Albom, a Detroit sportswriter and author of "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" with the idea.

It would seem, though, that the Albom-Starbucks partnership has more to do with helping the author and coffeehouse chain than it does with eradicating the scourge of illiteracy.

Let's not single them out when there's the Quills Awards to mention, though. Conceived last year by the publishers of Variety and Publishers Weekly magazines and NBC Universal Television Stations, the awards show was a slick and easy way to cash in on the big names of the publishing world.

The awards show organizer, Gerry Byrne, explained that the TV program was needed because other book award ceremonies just didn't help sales enough.

To simplify matters -- and avoid paying judges -- the producers set up an online voting system to "let the people decide" who the best writers were and dreamed up 21 categories, a little bit for everyone.

Librarians and bookstore owners nominate their choices from books meeting such criteria as an appearance on Borders Books best-seller list or a starred review in Publishers Weekly. The nominations were announced last week.

Spare change from the TV program would be donated to -- what else? -- literacy programs. This year, the money goes to Target for the store chain's reading programs. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg will also be recognized for her literacy efforts in New York City.

The Quills award show will be broadcast Oct. 10.

The ability and desire to read are really functions of a society that values them for their own sake, not as an afterthought in the selling of books and advertising.

Yet, even though there's no end to America's literacy groups and the soliciting of donations, the concern persists that reading skills nationwide are getting worse.

Perhaps what's needed is the acknowledgment that reading and the writing of good books needs to be encouraged after the literacy program ends.

Great literature and nonfiction demand a sophisticated, educated audience. Assuring that this audience continues from generation to generation is going to cost more than $1 a book, even if Mitch Albom sells every one of the 2.2 million his publisher is turning out.


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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