Alejandro De La Garza, 2018
Tag Archives: literacy
Hi, my name is Alejandro, and I’m a bibliophile. And damn proud of it, too!
Yes, of all my curious habits, book collecting is the most pronounced. A gatherer of literature; a captive of scribes; a hoarder of tomes. Don’t try an intervention on me, though! Your picture might end up on a milk carton.
My fascination with books goes back to my toddler years, when my parents bought a slew of children’s literature – mainly the classic “Little Golden Books” – and set me down in front of them. Their determination to instill a love for reading in me stemmed from their own upbringing. They come from a generation where a high school diploma was enough to get through life. But, while it took me more years than I wished to complete my own formal education, that love for the written word was embedded into my brain at that young age and has never faded. I still have all those “Little Golden Books.” They’re aged and crinkled – practically falling apart – but they’re mine. And they’re just as valuable as the rest of my vast cache of reading material.
I recently did a comprehensive inventory of my books and have counted 459. This gallery doesn’t include my equally grand collection of magazines, such as “National Geographic.” Some neighbors, a childless couple, bought my parents and I a gift subscription for Christmas 1975. I fell in love with the magazine and have maintained an annual subscription ever since. Over the years, I’ve collected a number of older “National Geographic” periodicals; some dating back to the 1920s. Other magazines include “Archaeology,” “International Artist,” “Smithsonian” and “The Sun.”
But it’s the myriad of books that harbor the essence of my cerebral interests. I don’t have enough shelves for them, so – as you can see from the photos below – I’ve merely stacked them wherever I can. Among my prized tomes are first editions of Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough.” I have a 50th anniversary edition of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” from the Folio Society and “The Multi-Orgasmic Man.” (No, it’s not erotic fiction.) I have the complete works of both Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov; Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes compiled into a 3-volume set; almost every Agatha Christie murder mystery; and Geoff Mains’ “Urban Aboriginals,” a comprehensive guide for leather fetish aficionados.
Two items from Taschen, “Circus Book: 1870 – 1950” and “Magic: 1400s – 1950s,” go beyond qualifying as coffee table books – they practically are coffee tables! They’d also qualify as deadly weapons and – in a state like Texas where education is virtually an elective – I might be committing a crime in owning them.
It’s not unusual for me to be reading two or more books at once. Currently, I have three going: “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700,” Robert Ludlum’s “The Aquitaine Progression,” and Tom Bianchi’s “Fire Island Pines.” “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” is so called because of a mysterious series of tsunamis that struck Japan’s eastern coastlines in January of 1700; an orphan in that no local seismic activity had been noted. Scientists finally made the connection between that “orphan” and a powerful earthquake that rocked what is now the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
My love for dogs matches my love for books. The two merge in Catherine Johns’ “Dogs: History, Myth, Art,” Bruce Fogle’s “New Encyclopedia of the Dog,” and “Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives & Evolutionary History.” The latter is very much like a text book, but it’s the best one on the canine species I’ve ever read.
My collection ranges from the practical – Charles Schwab’s “Guide to Independence” – to the whimsical – H. Jackson Browne’s “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the smallest-sized item in the group.
Although I’m no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I have Steven Runciman’s “A History of the Crusades,” which is a triptych piece: “The First Crusade,” “The Kingdom of Jerusalem” and “The Kingdom of Acre.” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” is an in-depth analysis of the possibility Jesus Christ survived crucifixion and went on to get married and have children. Conversely “The Day Christ Died” is Jim Bishop’s intimate retelling of Jesus’ purported final days before his death. Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil” is an account of five cases of demonic possession the late Irish-born Jesuit priest attended. Martin gained notoriety several years ago when he claimed Satanism had been practiced within the Vatican. I once offered to lend Martin’s book to a close friend, but he vehemently refused. “That’d be scary to read something like that,” he told me. He’s the only person I’ve ever known to be terrified of a book.
Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised that my preoccupation with the macabre and supernatural manifests itself in Ann Arensberg’s “Incubus,” as well as “Ghosts,” a collection of short stories compiled by Marvin Kaye, and Mary Higgins Clark’s “Where Are the Children?” But I also like to view the so-called supernatural from a practical lens, as is evident in Nicholas Roger’s “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.” Before my parents saw “The Exorcist” at the theatre, my mother read William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name. We had moved into a house in suburban Dallas more than a year earlier; an area that had once been farm land. Displaced mice and scorpions often turned up in the home. Reading “The Exorcist” one night after I’d gone to bed and my father had returned to work for a short while, my mother was startled by faint scratching sounds coming from within the walls. (If you’ve either seen the book or read the movie, you know what I’m talking about.) ‘We need to get this house blessed,’ my mother thought, as we were still devout Catholics. But an exterminator later told us the noises came from confused mice, trying to get out. Or – so he said.
My fascination with Earth’s natural elements shows up in Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm” and R.A. Scotti’s “Sudden Sea,” each about two of the deadliest hurricanes to strike the United States in the 20th century. The National Geographic Society’s “Realms of the Sea” is as much a study of the world’s oceans as it is a photographic collage. Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded” details the 1883 eruption of the notorious Indian Ocean volcano that altered the planet’s climate, even into the 20th century, and became a synonym for all types of global cataclysms.
History has a firm place in this array: Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century,” Edmund Morris’ “Theodore Rex” and A. Scott Berg’s “Wilson.” I believe Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” and “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” should be required reading in schools. Together they explain a lot how the world has come to exist in its current condition. Neither is told from a strictly Euro-Christian viewpoint, so that would be the first obstacle to overcome in getting them into the hands of grade-school students. But it’d be worth the trouble.
I’m also not the only writer in the family. One of my first cousins, Richard De La Garza, PhD., co-authored “Cocaine and Methamphetamine Dependence: Advances in Treatment.” A guide for psychiatrists specializing in drug addiction, it’s just one factor in Richard’s ongoing efforts to mitigate the damage caused by substance abuse; mainly cocaine and methamphetamine.
Aside from “Giant” and “The Day Christ Died,” one of my oldest books is Lareina Rule’s “Name Your Baby,” published the same year I was born. I’ll search through it sometimes, as I name the characters in my stories. I still have some actual reference and text books, such as Reader’s Digest’s “Family Word Finder,” which I still use religiously for my writing; the always indispensable “Chicago Manual of Style (6th ed.)”; and Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” a guide for the Internet age. Of my three dictionaries, “The Living Webster: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language,” is the oldest, as well as the largest. It wouldn’t qualify as a coffee-table; it’s more of a small-lamp end-table type. One of my mother’s work colleagues had bought it for me as a birthday present in the 1970s. That woman knew I liked to write stories and felt it would make the perfect gift for me. She was right. My mother had said the woman’s son had been killed in Vietnam and had become so distressed by it that she’d periodically tell people at the office she needed to call her son…before realizing he was dead. Now I watch helplessly as my mother’s own memory keeps faltering. That mammoth dictionary still ranks as one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
I’ve tried to share my love for reading with other people. In July of 1998, I was surprised to get a notice in the mail from some friends announcing the birth of their daughter. I rushed out to buy a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. In 2005, my then-supervisor and his wife adopted a baby boy from Guatemala. I did the exact same thing: bought a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. Get that kid into reading as soon as possible!
I’ve heard more than a few people say that reading is a waste of time. To them, I politely say, ‘You’re an asshole.’ More directly: an illiterate asshole. Many of them are the same ones who consider TV guides and beer bottle labels reading material. Others have told me the Christian Bible is the only book they’ve read front to back or are reading at that moment. In that regard, I consider Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” on equal grounds, since it’s also filled with violence and erotic imagery. (Yes, I have that one, too, and find it more plausible than the Bible.)
If people spent more time reading, they’d learn more about the world around them and wouldn’t have much time left for fighting or fucking. Fewer people would get killed and / or get sick.
Literacy is such an integral part of civilization I can’t understand why someone would find it boring. Societies with high rates of literacy and education generally have lower rates of violence and are more politically and socially stable. Nations such as Australia, Israel, Japan and Norway boast some of the highest standards of living in the world, which correlates to their equally high rates of literacy – almost 100% in each case. People who can read and write spend more time contemplating the mysteries of the universe and how to make the world better for everyone. Yes, sometimes they misuse that knowledge to harm others. But, then again, there are people who view education itself as dangerous; a detriment to the structure of the society they’ve carefully designed for themselves. An educated populace is composed of people who can think for themselves. They have the audacity to question authority and wonder aloud why things have always been done a certain way. Such boldness upsets the oppressors, but it’s a measure of true spiritual freedom. For me, freedom comes in all shapes, sizes and colors of the written word.
Top image courtesy of “Must Be This Tall to Ride.”
“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action – though often trivial in isolation – are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”
Among the casualties of last month’s Hurricane Sandy, books are the least recognized. The “Reach Out and Read Program” at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital was hit particularly hard, when they lost thousands of books to the storm. Children visit a doctor’s office more than most any other place before they start first grade, so the “Reach Out and Read Program” aims to place children’s books in doctor’s offices. There’s nothing more valuable than the ability to read and write, and providing a child a book can introduce them to a greater number of opportunities than they might otherwise encounter. This nation has spent too much money on war and prisons. As individuals, we can certainly make a difference by spending money on one book to donate to the program.
You can make a monetary donation here.
Or, contact Marie Betancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org to find other ways to donate. She’s already advised me, however, that Bellevue is currently closed because of the storm. But, I think we can all still have a more positive impact on the lives of the patients it serves.
Image courtesy Literary Hoarders.
Watching the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney the other night invoked a number of emotions in me; mainly nausea. Obama looked half-asleep, while Romney displayed yet another side of his plastic persona. Romney contradicted himself more times than someone with schizophrenia, and Obama simply didn’t show any backbone. Considering that Romney announced he would take down “Sesame Street” and Obama expressed joy last week that the National Football League’s referee strike had ended peacefully, I haven’t been this disillusioned about politics since January 20, 2001, when George W. Bush first took office.
It’s come to this? PBS and football referees are that utterly important in the overall scheme of America’s ongoing economic crisis? Well, at least PBS serves a purpose. But, even before the Obama – Romney debate, I pondered why America has let itself stoop to such lowly aspirations. This is a country that built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system in the mid-1800’s and, less than a century later, constructed the world’s largest highway system. Following World War II, this same nation created the strongest middle class the world has ever seen. We were the first to take flight into the air and the first to place men on the moon. We helped to develop automobiles, telephones, radio, televisions and computers. Now, we’re talking about creationism in schools and gay marriage. Are we serious? How did the national dialogue become so pathetic?
A half century ago, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; he wanted us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And, we did just that! Less than seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.
I’m somewhat of a dreamer. In fact, I’m a big dreamer. My quiet, sometimes introverted personality conjures up the most fantastic of stories. But, it also envisions the seemingly impossible of events. Thus, while some people worry what Vice President Joe Biden might say in his debate with Congressman Paul Ryan next week and others sit on the edge of their seats, wondering who will take first place on “Dancing with the Stars,” I propose the following challenges to my fellow Americans.
Energy Independent – Every American president since Richard Nixon has called for the U.S. to be completely and totally energy independent. The oil embargoes of the 1970’s first made us realize how badly our nation is beholden to the Saudi royal family who – just a few decades earlier – were still living a nomadic lifestyle. Our technology helped them move into the 20th century almost overnight. Currently, though, the U.S. obtains most of its oil from Latin America, mainly Venezuela. We actually buy more oil from Canada than from OPEC nations. But, we’re still reliant upon foreign nations for a good chunk of our fuel. And, we’re still too dependent upon coal and natural gas. The fact is that those resources are finite. They’re also dirty and dangerous to extract from the Earth. I’d like to see the U.S. develop cleaner and safer means of energy by 2030. Yes, that’s less than 20 years from now, but I know we can do it. And, we need to do it. We can’t continue to pollute our environment and put our citizens at risk just to keep the lights on in the house.
Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into Florida as a borderline category 5 storm, before marching across the Gulf of México and slamming into Louisiana. It was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history at the time; costing an estimated $26 billion. For weeks afterward, residents in the impact zones lived without power. Andrew had knocked down and / or destroyed thousands of yards of power and telecommunication lines. In the richest, most powerful country on Earth, people found themselves struggling from day to day in a third world-style environment in the heat of summer. Twenty years later Hurricane Isaac gently rolled over southeastern Louisiana and did virtually the same thing to all those power and telecommunication lines. Tropical storm systems aren’t the only harbinger of disaster. Almost every winter, people in the northeastern U.S. brace for mighty arctic hurricanes that send them back into those third world type living conditions. The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes. We can never control what the planet’s natural elements will do. Every time humans have tried to fight nature, they almost always get smacked back into reality. But, we can mitigate the impact of these calamities by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible. This is not a new idea. Many people – from energy analysts to, yes, politicians – have pushed for this to be done on a massive scale. But, there have been plenty of detractors. While we already have a large number of subterranean power and telecommunication lines, opponents claim they’re not necessarily more reliable than overhead lines. While overhead lines experience more outages and are more vulnerable to every piece of aerial debris from disoriented birds to tree branches, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise. Another obstacle, of course, is money. There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines, and – as you might have guessed – those costs must be passed onto consumers, either in the form of higher utility rates or increased taxes. But, I think it’s well worth the financial burden. Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power; food is spoiled and lives can be endangered in extreme heat or cold. The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.
Humans on Mars – For eons, our ancestors wondered what it was like on the surface of the moon. When the U.S. finally made it there in July of 1969, our fanciful images of otherworldly beings gave way to the bland reality of rocks and dust. But, we made it! We’d successfully landed humans on the surface of another celestial body and brought them back to Earth. Almost immediately, people began contemplating a trip to Mars. The U.S. has come close; first with the Viking I and II voyages, and most recently, with the Curiosity mission. These have been unstaffed journeys, but they’re important. The U.S. space program of the 1960’s helped to advance technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, such as facsimile machines and cordless phones, but also with engineering and robotics. As with any grand adventure, however, there are detractors who look primarily (or only) at the money factor. The Viking missions alone cost $1 billion – in 1970’s-era figures – and, as of now, the Curiosity budget has exceeded $2.5 billion. But so far, the U.S. has spent nearly $807 trillion in Iraq and almost $572 trillion in Afghanistan. If we can afford that kind of cash to kill people and destroy entire towns and villages, we definitely can expend a fraction of that money on a staffed trip to Mars. I don’t believe we’re alone in this universe. And, it’s in our nature as humans to explore and discover. I feel we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by 2030.
100% Literacy Rate – This is the most ambitious of my goals. Literacy and education are paramount to the success of any society. But, they’re also the most personal and the most difficult. As of 2012, the U.S. literacy rate stands at roughly 80%. While this means that more than three-quarters of the U.S. population can read and write to some degree, we’re still far behind such countries as Denmark, Japan and Norway where literacy rates hover close to 100%. Why is the U.S. at a dismal 80%? I think much of it has to do with our elected officials and their reluctance to consider education as equally important as military prowess and individual financial wealth. Moreover, the United States boasts the largest rate of incarceration than any other nation; some 1.8 million people are imprisoned here, or about 1 of every 100 adults. Of those individuals, roughly 70% are illiterate. While rates vary among states, it costs roughly $23,000 per year to house one person in a prison. However, it costs about $1,000 to educate a child each year at the elementary level and about $3,000 per year at the high school level. College educations also vary widely among states and differ between private and public universities. But, the average cost per year is about $15,000. Once someone graduates from college, or even a vocational training program, however, they can enter the work force and start paying back those costs in earnings and taxes, as well as consumer spending. Somehow, though, our political elite thinks it’s more feasible to imprison someone than to educate them. Every year across this nation, states balance their school budgets on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens: elderly, disabled and children. Just like with the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, it’s beyond me to understand why this nation always has enough money for war, but never enough for education. I feel it’s the conservative mindset working against us. Earlier this year former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denounced President Obama as a “snob” for wanting everyone in the U.S. to have a college education. Ignoring such stupidity, though, I think it’s plausible for the U.S. to have a 100% literacy rate by 2050, if not sooner. It’s well worth the expense, as we’ll see our prison rates decrease, while consumer spending rates increase. Educated people generally make better decisions and think first before they act. It’s easier to give a child and book and deal with their barrage of questions once they finish reading it than to let a kid drop out of school and deal with their bad attitude once they’re in jail.
I know naysayers will read this and scoff at my lofty ambitions; perhaps accusing me of arrogance in imposing such goals upon others. I’m not forcing anyone to believe as I do. But, the wealthiest nation on Earth should have much greater objectives than ensuring tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of its citizens or constructing a wall along the southern border. Our grand ethnic and cultural diversity will allow for it. Our future depends on it. It’s in our nature as humans to wonder and explore – and to dream big.
Nowhere are education and literacy needed than in developing nations. This year El Salvador, which endured many years of civil conflict, commenced its first annual “Literacy Brigade” as part of its National Literacy Program. For the first time in El Salvador’s history, the government is providing children with school uniforms, school materials and daily meals, while at the same time combating illiteracy among adults. It’s a daunting task, but it’s already showing results. Salvador Sanchez Cerén, the Minister of Education, notes that since 2010, illiteracy has been eliminated in 6 of the country’s municipalities and hopes to declared El Salvador’s illiteracy rate to be less than 4% within 2 years.
For three weeks this past summer, 28 university students, teachers, workers, mothers and retirees participated in this literacy brigade, bringing hundreds of donated notebooks, pencils and eyeglasses to dozens of communities. The first step in the NLP is to identify candidates with a door-to-door census conducted by NLP staff and community volunteers. The program’s paid promoters work to build local literacy circles in communities by convincing people who cannot read or write – many of whom are women over age 60 – to participate in this free literacy program, while simultaneously organizing community members and young students to share their knowledge and time as literacy teachers. Promoters often have to walk for hours to visit communities beyond the reach of public transportation or roads; often enduring harsh weather conditions, to follow the progress of the literacy circles that they helped build.
The effort obviously is starting to pay off. And, I think it’s well worth the struggle for the educators. In a tiny nation racked by so much violence, education can be a bridge towards a peaceful future. It’s necessity. People reading and writing can produce so much more than people shooting and killing.
When a former supervisor of mine and his wife adopted a baby boy from Guatemala, I bought them a gift certificate to Babies-R-Us and a huge book of nursery rhymes. The latter, from my perspective, was especially important. I began reading at the age of 2, mainly because my parents knew early on that education is paramount. In fact, I still have many of those childhood books, which are slightly tattered and probably collector’s items. But, my folks didn’t have many of the same educational opportunities I did; they grew up in an environment where few people attended college. My father recalls being steered from a drafting class in high school into a trade course where he learned the art of operating a printing press. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s the line the old woman who signed him up attached to it: “Most Spanish boys go into trade school.” Naïve as he was, he didn’t know any better, but the implications are obvious now; only White people need apply.
As a writer, I’m naturally an avid reader. I have about 5 different types of books on my reading agenda right now. I just alternate between them. But, I think even the average person understands the importance of literacy. A literate population is less likely, for example, to engage in conflict and instead, to seek compromise or more peaceful resolutions. Women who are literate are less likely to have children and more likely to become active members of their communities; that is, they suddenly realize they can do more with their lives than be wives and mothers. That may be one reason why governments and religious institutions in the past would rather keep the masses illiterate and ignorant; an educated populace can be dangerous in the eyes of some. Look at what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in the 1990’s. The male-dominated hierarchy shoved women and girls out of schools and enforced a strict Islamic doctrine as the only necessary education. The rest is tragic history.
Writer and educator Walter Dean Myers knows a few things about literacy. He’s the author of more than 80 books, ranging from picture books to realistic young adult fiction, and the recipient of numerous literary awards: 2 Newbury Honors, a Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the 1994 American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edward Award. Most people, at 74, would prefer to slow down after a similar lifetime of hard work and accolades. But, to Myers, children’s literacy is too important an issue for him to rest on his own laurels. Besides, he has a new title – National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. And, the matter of teaching kids to read and write is much more complicated than just getting them to sit still. As Myers reveals
in this interview, it all begins with adults willing to take the time to read to those same kids. After all, our nation’s future and viability in a constantly-changing global market depend on it.