Can't Read? Go To the Library

The impending doom of bookstores and libraries is a hot topic these days. For me, a bookseller, the issue is even hotter. Sometimes it feels as though I am surrounded by a modern-day Greek chorus lamenting the demise of my industry. Even Terry Deary, author of the beloved Horrible Histories series for children, has sounded the death knell. Libraries are "irrelevant," he said recently. "They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be."

Terry Deary may know his history, but on this subject, he is dead wrong. His statements reflect a woeful misunderstanding of the support libraries and bookstores provide not only to the book industry, but to society at large. Unfortunately, Deary is not alone in his ignorance. Even the book-loving community, which has argued at length for the enduring relevance of libraries and bookstores as bastions of knowledge and creativity, has neglected one glaring reason that these institutions must survive -- illiteracy.

Illiteracy in the United States has been called a "hidden epidemic," one that exists beyond the awareness of even the most educated Americans. The statistics, once uncovered, are shocking. Conservative estimates place the number of functionally illiterate American adults at 30 million. That makes 30 million Americans who cannot cast a reasoned vote or understand a map. They cannot read the news or even make sense of the information on a prescription bottle. Literacy Partners, an organization that offers support to illiterate adults in New York City, estimates that these rates of low literacy cost the United States an annual $305 billion in "lost worker productivity, unemployment benefits, lost taxes, and crime," not to mention the costs associated with low health literacy. And yet the consequences are even graver for non-readers themselves. Adults who cannot read are often condemned to a life of poverty; 14.5% of illiterate Americans are jobless, and those who are employed earn at least $30,000 less per year than college graduates. Is it any surprise that 65% of incarcerated Americans can't read?

What has not been acknowledged in the persistent conversation about bookstores and libraries is that these institutions can and do play a key role in the fight against illiteracy. At the most basic level, they provide the materials necessary for children to learn to read in the first place. The chances that a child will drop out of high school quadruple if that child cannot read at grade level by about age 9 (this rate rises drastically among non-white populations), and yet many of the most vulnerable children lack access to books in the first place. As The New York Times reported in 2012, one middle school in the Bronx owned no books, only photocopies, before receiving a grant from the City of New York. Chillingly -- and unsurprisingly -- only 13% of their fourth graders were proficient readers at that time.

Local bookstores and libraries are crucial supplements to cash-strapped schools in such communities, and not only as providers of books themselves. Even a child who can read will have no incentive to hone their skills without a steady supply of compelling material. Librarians and booksellers are experts in children's literature; it is our job to get kids excited about reading. We are engaged daily in the delicate work of selecting the right book for individual children -- we handpick titles that will suit a growing reader both in terms of difficulty and interest.

Libraries in particular are also important resources for adults with low literacy skills. Less than 10% of illiterate Americans nationwide currently receive literacy support. In New York City, however, the percentage is higher, thanks in part to the efforts of the New York Public Library, which offers classes in adult literacy at numerous branches citywide. Bookstores, meanwhile, also assist these adults by providing literacy resources for their kids. Children of illiterate parents find themselves at a disadvantage in literacy education as early as age three -- one study showed that preschoolers whose parents read to them at home had vocabularies twice the size of those whose parents were unable to do so. Bookstores are an invaluable resource to these families -- for example, my store hosts free story time sessions for young children up to twice a week.

It is all the more surprising, then, that despite the important work book professionals do to combat illiteracy, the epidemic as a topic of concern is rarely discussed in the bookselling community. Ironically, illiteracy is poorly understood in the industry that it impacts the most. Recently a customer asked me where a donation of her used books would make the most difference. My colleagues and I were startled to realize that we didn't have a ready answer.

To be unaware of illiteracy is unacceptable. The fight against this epidemic is part of what makes literary professionals relevant. Bookstores and libraries are not merely arcane repositories of information that cater to a privileged few. Rather, they are vital centers of literacy that can and do empower Americans through reading.

Admittedly, libraries are more active in local fights against illiteracy than bookstores, which tend to survive in affluent, highly educated communities. However, illiteracy touches so many Americans that there is no excuse not to be involved. The great work that bookstores and libraries already do for those who love to read should be expanded to those who aren't so fortunate. Illiterate people live on the fringes of American society, unable to take part in or contribute to the generous offerings of our democracy. The rich network of American book professionals must be cognizant of this epidemic, or we run the risk of alienating ourselves in a society that desperately needs our support.

Let's prove Terry Deary wrong.