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Not Reading An Iota in America

As her expression changes to one that seems to say "It's not my job," she stands and heads purposefully out the door.

It's not my job either, but since American youngsters apparently spend an average of only seven minutes a day reading, it seems that providence, as Twain might put it, has put "Reading Lolita" and a witness subpoena in my hands at the same moment.

Certainly, a huge percentage of the people behind bars begin their "careers" in juvenile court, and certainly a huge percentage drop out of school before claiming their spaces in the criminal justice system? Certainly, there's some connection between not reading, and not thinking, and a national system that spends $22,650 a year per inmate to keep people in prison?

I think of Charlottesville bookstore owner Kay Allison and her wonderful work in Virginia with "Books Behind Bars," a prison book-donation program. Allison says she gets about 20 letters every day from prisoners who write to her in awkward block letters, desperately seeking books. Every day. Using their literal "down time," they seek to recover reading and thinking and connecting to the world outside -- not unlike the women in "Reading Lolita."

Maybe just one book in a juvenile court waiting room picked up by one bored kid might pull him or her back from disaster?

I know it's not much, but it seems worth the chance. After all, as the National Endowment for the Arts put it in a study released last November: "The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact -- books change lives for the better."

I don't quite complete "Reading Lolita" before the commonwealth's attorney tells me that my testimony won't be needed. But later, when I do, after I've asked my book club to donate used books, the concluding lines haunt me:

"Hardly anything has changed in the nonstop sameness of our everyday life. But somewhere else I have changed. Each morning with the rising of the routine sun as I wake up and put on my veil before the mirror to go out and become a part of what is called reality, I also know another 'I' that has become naked on the pages of a book."

The pages of a book: the bringers of magic, of knowledge, of hope.

Randy Salzman is a former journalism and communications professor living in Charlottesville.

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