Thirty Million Words

Last week, a literacy initiative established by the actress and county music legend Dolly Parton donated its 100 millionth book to a child. In an interview that the Library of Congress held to mark the occasion, Parton recalled her childhood in a family of 12, and her inspirational father (“the smartest person that I’ve ever known”) who had never gone to school, nor learned to read and write. Founded in 1995, The Imagination Library was Parton’s attempt to live up to the Biblical injunction to honour her parents. Using local partnerships with public libraries, nonprofits and state agencies, her group mails books to pre-school children throughout the year, to stimulate an interest in reading. The programme costs US$25 per child annually and has spread beyond the US to Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Reading initiatives like this were given a boost by a landmark 1995 study of childhood literacy called “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children.” Professors Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that by the age of 3, families that relied on welfare support were typically exposed to 30 million fewer words than children from families with robust incomes. Hart and Risley noted that even at this age “trends in amount of talk, vocabulary growth, and style of interaction were well established and clearly suggested widening gaps to come.” Children also mimicked their parents’ behaviour in profound ways: “When we listened to the children, we seemed to hear their parents speaking; when we watched the children play at parenting with their dolls, we seemed to see the futures of their own children.”

It is hard to read this without wondering what our relative indifference to childhood literacy in the Caribbean will mean for our own societies. In earlier generations, especially those who grew up in the shadow of the British Empire, access to a good library offered an escape from the narrowness of one’s culture. The working class Scot R.D. Laing, for instance, read his way alphabetically through his entire local library before going on to write several landmark books in psychology. In British Guiana, Martin Carter got used to reading a book a day while he was still a schoolboy. This allowed him, as an adult, to discuss German philosophy, Greek tragedy, Russian poetry and the entire corpus of English literature – along with its associated history and politics – with magisterial ease. It cannot be stressed enough that this staggering intellectual range, and the moral force that accompanied it,  was the fruit of Carter’s sustained reading – and endless marginalia – rather than a stint at a university.

Literacy, and its rewards, is often confused with pretentiousness in the Caribbean. (In V.S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street”, a schoolboy memorably confesses that ‘Is the English and litritcher that does beat me’; another responds: ‘You mean you have to read a lot of poultry and thing?’). But its practical consequences are political more than cultural. In some of his most-quoted lines, Martin Carter writes: “I have learnt/ from books dear friend/ of men dreaming and living/ and hungering in a room without a light/ who could not die since death was far too poor/ who did not sleep to dream, but dreamed to change the world.”

A public that follows, and contributes to debates in its newspapers’ letter columns, a public that bristles at corruption and insists on transparency and accountability, is engaged in a similar dream. Rather merely absorbing, or ignoring, new information, it is responding to the news and making the court of public opinion the political force it should be. Yet, knowing all this, we do little to inculcate the habits that will help children digest stories, dispute their meanings, and eventually think for themselves.

Fortunately, this problem can be fixed: thirty million words at a time.

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