Monday, February 16, 2009

The Reader

We finally saw “The Reader” yesterday—the last of the major Oscar-nominated films we needed to see. It was powerful and beautifully performed and touched me far more deeply than expected, even though I’m a huge sucker for thoughtful, sad love stories.

Although the entire movie was heart-wrenching, the most poignant part for me was when [SPOILER ALERT!] Michael (Ralph Fiennes) decides to send tape-recorded books to his former lover Hannah (Kate Winslet), whom he knows is illiterate. This tender gesture, which changes Hannah’s life, made me cry like no other scene in the movie.

Certainly there are much grander themes of morality and “doing the right thing” in the film. But the importance of literacy and the power of the written word are an integral part of the larger themes presented here. Maybe it’s just the librarian in me, but the ability to read is so critical that I think the act of reading to another person is one of the most precious gifts we can give someone. Imagine a parent reading to a young child before saying goodnight or an elderly wife reading to her sick husband. It's no exaggeration to say that sharing the written word can be as profound an act of love as any.

So what does this mean to librarians? Would Hannah still have become a Nazi guard if she had used a library when she was young? In the context of the movie, her shame of being illiterate directly forced her into a job that enabled the murder of hundreds of women and children. To me, the implications run much deeper, however. Because she couldn’t read, Hannah’s existence was very black-and-white—almost binary: if she couldn’t do this thing, then she would do that. There were no shades of gray in her life. By reading, however, her mind would have been opened to multiple worlds and ideas, which in turn may have led her to a life of more options. As it was, her ignorance resulted only in tragedy.

Of course, today’s libraries are much more than just book depositories: we offer programs, a “third place” where people can congregate, and information in many different formats. Literacy, too, has expanded to encompass all knowledge, not just reading. There’s information literacy, media literacy, consumer literacy, and even financial literacy. But it still all boils down to the written word.

In a wonderful article published in today’s New York Times, a school librarian helps kids find the best information possible.

“Have you looked in any books?” she asks a 13-year-old doing research on the Internet. “Does anybody like books?” she then asks the rest of the students in the library. They shake their heads no.

“You can read magazines, newspapers, pictures, computer programs, Web sites,” she tells them all. “You can read anything you like to, but you have to read. Is that a deal?”

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