Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Writing the next chapter with books -- Sept. 5, 2019 column


As summer unofficially wound to a close, more than 200,000 people thronged the National Book Festival Saturday, with a dozen or so hardy souls camping on the sidewalk more than five hours before the doors opened.

The reason for 3 a.m. arrivals was a cultural hero known for her day job. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew a capacity crowd of more than 5,000 to the Main Stage area, which had been doubled in size since last year’s festival.

Thousands more watched her on screens outside the Main Stage and through the website of the Library of Congress, which sponsors the annual book fest. She talked about her 2016 book, “My Own Words,” a collection of her writings, and gave encouraging words to fans everywhere.

“I’m still alive,” the indomitable Ginsburg, 86, said. Recovering from her latest cancer treatment, she said she’ll be ready to work when the court’s term begins the first Monday in October.

Other big names included chef Jose Andres, historian David McCullough and novelist Barbara Kingsolver as well as many children’s authors and activities.

The mood at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was celebratory, as people good-naturedly waited in lines -- to enter and pass through security, to hear authors speak, to purchase books at full price, and to have a quick meet-and-sign with authors.

Several people I met in lines told me seeing so many people happily loaded down with books, mostly hardbacks, cheered them. It was also reassuring to see people were polite and their questions respectful.  

For those who spend all day there, which is easy to do, the festival’s free admission eases, somewhat, the pinch of convention center prices for snacks – a bottle of water for $4.50, for example.   

Still, not bad for day that affirms ideas and reading at a time when both seem threatened.   

Book festivals have proliferated since then-First Lady Laura Bush founded the National Book Festival 19 years ago. Almost any weekend this fall, you can find a book festival somewhere in the United States. Check out the festivals list at

All this is excellent news for book lovers, but, sadly, it’s not the whole story.

The world’s wealthiest country ranks just 16th in the world in literacy. Roughly 32 million or 33 million adults – about 13% of the population -- cannot read past the third-grade level, philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, a major supporter of the National Book Festival, said at its opening gala.

These non-readers are not foreigners who are literate in another language but people who are functionally illiterate in any language, he said.

They can’t get good jobs, and thus earn much less, are more likely to get in trouble with the law, and, as Rubenstein diplomatically put it, have “not as pleasant a life” as people who can read.    

Rubenstein runs The Carlyle Group, a private investment firm, and has given millions of dollars to patriotic projects, such as restoring or repairing the Washington monument, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and many other historic sites and museums.

He also bankrolls the Library of Congress’ Literacy Awards, which since 2013 have given $1.9 million in prizes to 120 organizations that promote literacy in 35 countries.

Yet he had more sobering news about those who are literate. “The average person in this country reads for pleasure 16 minutes a day,” he said.

I was shocked and skeptical pleasure reading was that small, so I checked the American Time Use Survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics asks people to record how much time they spend on various activities, such as work, housework and leisure activities.

Time spent reading varies by age. People 15 to 54 read for personal interest – not for school or work – an average of just 10 minutes or less a day last year. Those 75 and older read the most -- an average of 48 minutes a day.

Rubenstein also said 25% of Americans did not read a single book last year and 30% of college graduates never read another book after finishing school.

September always feels like the start of a new year, so let’s resolve not to be average.

Let’s make sure work and our other duties don’t keep us from the joy of reading. We can put books in our next chapter, enrich our own lives and perhaps lead by example for others.  

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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