Our culture takes literacy for granted

<strong>By David Carlson</strong>

I scratched my head as I tried to remember where and why I’d picked up a book the size of a cement block. As I opened part two of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s "Gulag Archipelago," I discovered the book was 672 pages. Little wonder that the book had only been collecting dust since I bought it.

Nevertheless, something prompted me to blow the dust off and open to the first chapter. I would read the first few pages, I thought, and then re-donate it to a book sale.

But then the magic of reading struck me once again.

Our culture takes literacy, the ability to read, for granted.

“Of course,” we say, “I can read. Doesn’t everyone?”

The answer is no.

Illiteracy still plagues many countries in our world, and low-level literacy in our own country means that reading is a painful chore for many.

But, as I said, reading a book is magical. Imagine a machine whereby a person could travel to Rome in the time of Caesar, to the Middle East in the time of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, or to India in the time of Gandhi.

Wouldn’t such a device be considered magical? This is the magic of reading — a reader can time-travel to any period of the past, to far-off places in our present world or even to hypothetical futures.

Even as a person living far from the ocean is landlocked, so a person who cannot read or chooses not to read is “time locked.” Their understanding of life is restricted to their present location and relationships alone.

Because of this, a non-reader has no other culture or time period with which to compare to her own. She is, in reality, stuck in time.

Of course, movies, TV and the Internet can break through this time-locked state. But nothing so rewards our curiosity and takes us into other worlds as does a book.

That is what Solzhenitsyn’s massive book did for me. Until I read this book, I didn’t know that so-called work camps existed all over Stalin’s Soviet Union, from the suburbs of Moscow to the farthest reaches of Siberia. Until I read this book, I didn’t know that one could be sentenced to 10, 20 or even more years for something as simple as furrowing one’s brow while looking at a photo of Lenin or Stalin. Until I read this book, I didn’t know that more than 25 million people died in these camps.

Solzhenitsyn could tell this story because he was one of those imprisoned. But his book is focused more on the hundreds of others in the camp, most of whom didn’t survive.

I’m sure Solzhenitsyn made little money from book sales. If part one of "Gulag Archipelago" is as long as part two, his combined work is over 1,200 pages. And the subject matter is bleak.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t put the book down, after I realized that Solzhenitsyn had done something heroic in confronting the Soviet system. Stalin, like all despots and dictators, counted on his victims being quickly forgotten. Solzhenitsyn didn’t let that happen.

The longer I stayed with the book, the more I felt the author challenging me — can you take in all this sorrow? Can you, O reader, imagine how difficult it was to hold on to one’s dignity in the face of constant hunger, exhaustion and death?

I decided to say “yes” to Solzhenitsyn’s challenge, but I don’t deserve any credit for finishing the book. Solzhenitsyn himself received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, but if he were alive, I believe he would say that the medal should go to the nameless ones who suffered in the camps.

Most did not survive the horrendous conditions of the camps, but because of Solzhenitsyn’s writing, these 25 million souls are as near to us as our public library.

Stalin believed no one would really care about the millions he threw away as garbage. We can prove Stalin and all dictators wrong by one simple act — opening a book.

<em>David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion and a Franklin resident. Send comments to [email protected]</em>