Some of us will be lucky enough to celebrate the American Library Association’s banned book week late this month, savoring the literature often unfairly demonized for one reason or another. We’ll reminisce about rafting down the river with Huck Finn, relive the Dresden bombing in “Slaughterhouse-Five” and be moved once more as Atticus Finch masterfully defends Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But for a quarter or so of the folks in Horry County, books such as these are always banned. Not because the books aren’t available. But because 25 to 30 percent of the Horry County population remains functionally illiterate. They read at or below a fifth-grade level. As Pat Bush, director of the Horry County Literacy Council, put it, these unfortunate folks “can’t do basic things that we take for granted.”
Such limitations stretch far beyond losing out on the world’s great literature. It can mean not being able to read nutrition information on food they buy, not being able to decipher manuals that come with new purchases, not being able to read the labels on their prescriptions. For some, it can mean not being able to read street signs. And in a sad Catch-22, it can often mean not even being able to find information on how to receive assistance in improving their literacy. Bush said most of their students come to them via word of mouth.
Why should the rest of us care? Why does it matter that our county hosts a permanent underclass, subsisting without the aid of the written word and struggling to advance? As Literacy Month rolls on, what’s it to the rest of us if some people never learn to enjoy Dickens or understand a recipe? Well, the first reason that springs to mind would be common human decency. Those who want to improve themselves but haven’t for whatever reason found the right means deserve the chance to try.
But while helping end such situations is charitable, it is also much more than a charity case. Helping others, as is so often the case, helps us as well. It should come as no surprise that literacy levels are tied to such measuring sticks as dropout rates, educational attainment, crime levels and prison populations. A more literate population is a better job force, more desirable to prospective employers, which our area spends much of its time and energy seeking to attract. And raising the literacy rate could help decrease the crime rate, as we minimize those who have turned to crime out of desperation or frustration at not finding gainful employment.
All of these reasons recommend the continued good work of the literacy council, which continues to be in need of volunteers (hint, hint). Others, such as the good people at Freedom Readers, or the former teachers who make up the Horry County Education Association – Retired, often work in schools with young readers to nip the problem in the bud and head off future issues.
Local efforts now also enjoy the assistance of Literacy Alive, a coalition of service providers that has made its mission the goal of promoting greater literacy throughout Horry County. The effort, which was finalized this summer, will not provide services of its own, but will do the important behind the scenes work of connecting those in need with services. Literacy Alive will also lobby local businesses and leaders on behalf of literacy efforts, spreading the word about the benefits of increasing literacy and building support for future efforts.
As a newspaper, we obviously believe in the power of the written word. It can change lives. It can shine needed light into dark places. It can make us laugh, or cry or shake our fists in anger. It can be a transformative power for good or ill. But only if we can read it.
For more information
What | Bi-monthly meeting of Literacy Alive, with guest speaker Joe Waters, associate director for Institute for Child Success
Where | Kline Center, Coastal Carolina University
When | Sept. 19, 8:30-10 a.m.
Contact | 843-357-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org
What | Horry County Literacy Council
Where | Myrtle Beach Family Learning Center, 3101 Oak St., Myrtle Beach
When | Call the office from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Contact | 843-839-1695, email@example.com, www.literacyhc.org
Cost | Free confidential, one-on-one tutoring