How life might have been if I had not been literate I can scarcely imagine. As a child at home I learned the language and how to use it, for my mother was a stickler on such matters, constantly providing examples of correct grammar and usage. The house was full of books. By the age of 4 I was reading well and writing longhand. A major stimulus for literacy was a branch of the public library three blocks away, where I could go without crossing any busy streets.
I went there every Saturday morning -- by myself after the first time -- to the children's library, to listen to Miss Chaun (I recall thinking she was dangerously clean) read stories to the kids. The fare included the common kid stories, and I think I must have had a crush on Miss Chaun herself, for she was very nice without being treacle-sweet (I remember not trusting people who were too nice). She was a great reader, too, making the stories come alive and seem very real to us. I hope Miss Chaun is still with us, though she would be about 90 if she were.
After the story hour (which was probably a half-hour), I would hang around in the library for a while, looking at picture books, reading other books, and gazing for hours at still pictures made to be viewed through a special 3-D viewer called a Stereopticon. The library had many collections of these pictures, most of them showing exotic places and the people who lived there.
Even as a very young kid (4 or 5) I was always mechanically inclined. Aircraft have been a lifelong interest, and at 6 or 7 I took up making model airplanes. The branch library had quite a few books on this activity, and on aviation more generally, especially the history of flying machines. From that early age developed another habit: what interests me and includes some sort of tangible activity becomes something I really get into, of which reading forms a very significant part. "What is this?" "How does this work?" "How is this made?"
When I was 10, we moved to a large but dilapidated six-flat apartment building quite close to downtown Peoria. I soon started delivering newspapers, and crossing busy streets was no longer a problem; by then I had made dodging cars an art form.
Now I could go to the main branch of the public library, which was about six blocks away. It was a huge Romanesque Revival building of red brick. I can't recall whether I had to get a note from my mother before they would let me use the whole place, but in any case I was soon doing just that. I was a fast reader, so I devoured everything I could get my hands on.
A curious result of my more adult-style reading was that I missed a lot of the things younger people read in those days, Nancy Drew stories and the like. I did read all of the doggie-adventure genre I could find, for instance the many incarnations of Buff the Collie, by Albert Payson Terhune.
It was years later, confronted in one way or another by people who had had no contact whatever with books or reading, not to mention writing, that I realized what a great asset my early forays into libraries had been. Even later it was to stand me in good stead as a graduate student, for one thing I was good at was using a library and all the bibliographic tools in it. It's surprising how often you can tell whether a book has the thing you're looking for, just by examining its catalog card. Now that catalog cards are dinosaurs being made extinct by online search tools, one can't help but wonder if the books themselves will be next to disappear.
From a practical perspective, this disappearance is inevitable; hard copies cost a fortune to create, distribute, handle and store, compared to computerized methods. I've worked in computing all of my adult life, so perhaps I saw this coming a bit earlier than some of my fellow citizens, but it's really here now, and major portions of library collections all over the world are a few keystrokes from appearing on my screen.
I used to think the thing I was getting from the books was knowledge. To some degree it certainly was. But more and more I think of literacy as an ability to articulate my own experiences in ways others might relate to. Having said that, I'm painfully aware that what I think of as literacy is among the many things fast disappearing from the scene. I'm not sure it can all be blamed on television, but certainly some of it can. While visual and cultural literacy are also very important, I think something very real is lost if people stop reading books.
It seems to me that not many young people these days have the attention span it takes to sit still long enough to read a book, for there's a big difference between consuming vast quantities of ready-made imagery and creating your own images from the abstraction known as language on a printed page. There could be a real threat to the richness of our imaginations if we depend primarily and passively on the images presented by the media, which after all serve purposes having more to do with commerce than with literature, art, or other aspects of various cultures.
However, perhaps the real standard-bearers of meaningful culture in the future will be librarians, for it is they who select what is to be made available in the new digital medium (squeezed hard, I suppose, by "sponsors" and other business-related detritus). Perhaps they will also be like wild-west scouts, threading the way for the hardy few who will be pioneers on a new frontier of literacy, out there in the distant future.