Literacy is key to building a successful society: to building democracy and ensuring informed political discourse, and to creating an educated populace that continues to learn and build its skills. While literacy rates in Canada are high, not every Canadian can read adequately enough to accurately navigate insurance forms and medical prescriptions, let alone essays or novels.
These are important concerns. But they aren’t the only reasons to develop literacy. It’s also important to Canada – to the social life of the nation – that we reach beyond basic definitions of literacy to consider cultural literacy. Specifically, we need to work to increase Canadians’ knowledge of our literature, both our literary history and the flourishing of literary forms in the present. As a society, an acquaintance with the depth of our literary history and the breadth of style, scope and subject of our fiction, poetry, prose and drama brings us together as a cultural unit. It also increases our openness to, and ability to engage with, the diversity of thought in our country.
The encouragement of this kind of literacy is both a personal, family project and a larger, communal one. It begins with fostering literacy and the love of books very young. I can remember the moment I learned to read, when I was three. I was engaged in one of my favourite pastimes, snuggled up on the couch in a mountain of books, flipping through one of them, when a surge of adrenaline flashed through my body: I realized I knew exactly what I was looking at. The words on the page made sense: the story was there and I could understand it, all of it, at once. I hared off to my mother, yelling “I’m reading, I’m reading!” It is one of my most vivid childhood memories, full of sensory power and joy.
From that time I’ve read: cereal boxes at the table; bus advertisements; aunts’ paperbacks at summer cottages; my grandmother’s leather-bound collection of Sir Walter Scott’s poems. I learned to read the newspaper sideways, since I sat on my father’s right side at breakfast, dodging splashes of grapefruit juice. Dad’s collection of Thornton W. Burgess animal stories, saved from his own youth, made me want to roam the woods – though I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a squirrel or a buzzard. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew gave me a clear though, retrospectively, totally inadequate sense of how to recover from being knocked unconscious, chloroformed or tied up in a room with a black widow spider. Reading my father’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail surreptitiously at age eleven undoubtedly had an effect on my religious views. A family car trip to PEI produced a tattered, crumb-dusted, beloved Anne trilogy. Roy Chapman Andrews’ All About Strange Beasts of the Past gave me an enduring fascination with archaeology, an understanding of the evolution of the horse and a healthy respect for tar pits. Thomas Raddall’s roaring adventures somehow imprinted early Maritime history into my head. My school friends accused me of reading the encyclopedia, and it’s true, I did love poring through it; it remains a family pastime today. There is rarely a gathering when, amidst some point of contention, someone does not shout for the encyclopedia – or, lately, for Google.
Later, I learned how to read literature “professionally:” to wallow in the sound and the texture of language, to pore over possible meanings. Like my original discovery of reading, this new, focused way of “close” reading fired me with happiness, and with ambition. I wanted to read the world. I wanted to join the detailed conversations about literature I found in articles and journals. And I wrote poetry and fell in love with poets – people I knew, of course, but also poets whose voices arrived to me in classes, in bars, in songs (that’s you, L. Cohen), in journals and zines.
As I heard more contemporary voices I became interested in researching Canadian literature, in assessing our literary responses to the world. I came to Canadian literature because it was what was happening here and now: a way of integrating my interest in the literary arts and my engagement with the social and political life around me. My childhood’s L.M. Montgomery and Thomas Raddall fit into the larger patterns of literary development in Canada: I saw the literature of earlier periods through the lens of the social and cultural changes occurring across the country.
In Canada, we need to make these connections clearer: between literature and life; between Canadian literature and Canadian life. Today when I teach students about our literature they sometimes ask me, “Why are we learning so much history?” And then they answer their own question: because while the two can be separated, it enriches our understanding of the past, and the present, immeasurably to encounter them together: to see the ways writers respond to the ideas and events around them, and to gain a greater appreciation for a time period by assessing its arts.
One of my great fears is to find myself, like some older people I know, unable to see well enough to read. My days would be very different, and far bleaker, without books: stripped of the time to contemplate, to encounter and respond to ideas, to immerse myself in others’ worlds. Likewise, a country without a widespread knowledge of its literature is left without a critical way to know itself. Let’s work, in our schools, our organizations, our public gatherings, our private lives, to make it an ordinary thing to read Canadian.