An Oct. 9 Style article incorrectly identified David Clemons as director of the Washington Literary Council. He is a student support specialist. A photo caption accompanying the story reversed the identities of Librarian of Congress James Billington and Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Billington is on the left in the photo, and Kooser is on the right. (Published 10/11/04)
The reader is propped against a low wall beneath a dim, yellowish light at the Greenbelt Metro Station.
In one way, he is alone: Reading is a solitary undertaking. In another way, he is among many: When the sun rises on this recent October Wednesday, it will provide a super-bright light for countless Washingtonians who -- like Brian C. Montgomery -- love to read books.
For a reader, any talk of the death of the written word or the triumph of the image is just that: talk. For a reader, the book still reigns supreme -- it's a technology without obsolescence; we are reading original copies of books that were written and printed hundreds of years ago. For a reader, a relationship with a book is something sacred and unspeakably mysterious.
Look around you. In the harshly designed metal chair at the dentist's office, on a bench in Lafayette Park, in a sunken sofa-cushion at a Caribou Coffee shop, even on the icy metal bleachers of FedEx Field, people are engrossed in books. Thousands of Washingtonians -- along with a raft of book writers, editors and illustrators -- are expected at the annual National Book Festival on the Mall today.
When it comes to literacy, Washington is a see-saw city. In a recent study of the nation's most literate places by Jack Miller, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, Washington placed second among cities over 500,000, behind Seattle and ahead of Denver, Boston, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. The city's illiteracy rate is also high. According to the most recent statistics available, 37 percent of people in the District are reading at the lowest level of literacy, or not at all.
But for many, Washington is a wonderland of word lovers. It's aswirl with bookstores and libraries and universities and book clubs and used-book sales. Washingtonians look to books for enlightenment, entertainment, information, transformation. The right book at the right place and time can work like a philosopher's stone, turning lead to gold. It can be pure joy.
"I always take the first train," says Montgomery, 44, "so I have time to read."
He's just getting started on a biography of Adm. John Paul Jones by Evan Thomas. He commutes from his home in Columbia to his office in Arlington. "I get three hours to myself," he says. He is married with two children. They are readers, he says, because he and his wife are readers.
Dressed for the coolness in a gray sports jacket, black V-neck sweater, dark striped shirt and black pants, Montgomery says that a lot of his disposable income is spent on books. He buys three or so a week. "I go through books like they were seedless grapes."
In the past 14 days, Montgomery has read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and "Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al-Qaeda" by Thomas Powers. He usually juggles a couple at once. At home, he is in the midst of a history of Nepal.
He takes a backward-facing seat on the Metro. There are other readers -- members of a not-so-secret society -- in the same car. A woman pores over "Drama Queen" by La Jill Hunt. A man is lost in "Kiss the Girls" by James Patterson.
Montgomery works with satellites at Science Applications International. Before that he was at NASA for seven years. Before that he was in grad school and college, and before that he was in Pittsburgh. "Reading books got me out of Pittsburgh," he says. "I lived in a library."
Montgomery says, "I don't cheat on my wife." He points to his book, "This is my vice."
9:10 a.m. In a third-grade classroom -- actually it's just a space blocked off by portable partitions -- at Malcolm X Elementary School in Congress Heights, 11 students are reading. In unison, they recite a list of consonant blends. Prompted by pictures on a large laminated poster, they half-heartedly sing-song:
"The ess-ell blend says slllide."
"The cee-arr blend says crrrab."
Their teacher, Syande Crosby, stands beside the poster. She wears a blue sweater, silver hoop earrings and an even-tempered smile.
To point out that reading is crucial to surviving and prevailing in society is trite but true. "The ability to read," former National Education Association President Bob Chase once observed, "is the most critical skill, fundamental to children's continued learning and achievement."
As early as third grade, some kids get it; others don't.
The children appear semi-inspired while doing their drills. But when one of the girls hands out a dozen Johnny Appleseed booklets -- one to each student and one to Crosby -- they become enraptured. They get swept up in the magical story of the man who planted trees all over the place.
The whole class reads aloud. Occasionally they stumble on new words, such as "orchard" and "cider." No one knows what apple cider is.
"Do you know what apple juice is?" asks Crosby.
Hands go up. Reading helps us understand the worlds we live in, and the ones we don't.
Malcolm X has 435 students and open classrooms. Laughter from other students and conversations among other teachers drift over the partition, making concentration very hard for Crosby's young readers. But they persevere. Everyone in the school reads for at least 120 minutes a day. The effort is showing results. Reading scores continue to rise gradually, according to Principal Vaughn Kimbrough, who is in his seventh year at the school. "It's a challenge every day," he says, "but it is rewarding."
When the student finally makes that connection, finally understands that letters on a page make a word and that the word represents some thing in the real world, pure magic occurs. Everything rushes together in a moment of astounding neurological choreography and it's like the creation of a new star. It's an everlasting, life-enhancing experience.
Crosby sees it happen all the time. "It's like a light bulb goes off in their heads," she says. "It's an aha moment. It finally clicks. You have to be here to see it. As adults we forget what it feels like."
At a nearby table two girls giggle uncontrollably. One of them has figured out a new word all by herself. She runs across the floor to Crosby to double-check.
"That's right," Crosby says, smiling. "Seedling. The word is seedling."
"See?" the girl calls back to her friend. "I told you!"
10:15 a.m. Librarian of Congress James Billington has been struggling with some words, too. He tells newly anointed Poet Laureate Ted Kooser that he's just read a novel, "The Black Candle," in the original, jargon-heavy Russian.
The book is crafted in the language of the gulag, "the real language people spoke," says Billington, one of the brainiest people in this brainiest of towns.
He adds, "It's very difficult to read."
The two men, whose lives have been shaped, sharpened and supported by books, are meeting for the first time. A plain-spoken Nebraskan, Kooser worked for years as an insurance executive. They sit across a small oval table from each other. In the window behind them, the dome of the library's majestic Jefferson Building looms like a lighthouse.
More than a million people visited the library -- this country's mecca for bibliophiles -- last year. It is a grand monument to literacy, adding 1,000 books to its collection of more than 19 million volumes every workday.
Kooser pulls gently at one ear as Billington's observations career from opera to Garibaldi to the Internet to the balletic ways of congressional hearings.
The librarian says, "I read multiple things rather in tandem," meaning he reads a lot of books at one time. "I just reread 'Billy Budd' after seeing the opera. As a rule, great novels don't translate well into operas."
Kooser says he has been reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, some poetry and some short stories. He tells Billington that he has been asked to help start a library in a small town. And he speaks of a place in Iowa that now has a library museum.
12:55 p.m. In the overused, underappreciated Martin Luther King Jr. main branch of the District's public library system, shelves of books have been removed to create more open space for public gatherings.
In a stuffy room on the third floor, 11 men and women between the ages of 30 and 70 sit around a table and learn to read. This class, called Sound Lab, is sponsored by the Washington Literacy Council.
The council's director, David Clemons, swears by the Wilson Reading System, a 12-step remedial reading and writing program. And for good reason.
Eight years ago, Clemons couldn't recognize the names of family members, except for his mother (because it had two g's in it) and his sister's (which had two t's). "I couldn't figure out how people were reading," he says.
An eighth-grade dropout, he was hardworking and clever enough to build a carpet-installing business, but his wife did all his reading. Because he could not read, he says, people cheated him out of money.
One day he got fed up. He walked into the library to get help filling out a form, the librarian persuaded him to sign up for literacy classes, and now, thanks to the Wilson method and devoted tutors, he's reading like a pro.
In fact, he is a pro. Reading "changed my life. Reading has gotten me out of boredom," he says. "I feel like I'm a full part of society."
Today tutor Judy Horowitz is leading the session. She goes over much of the same phonetic information, week in and week out, because there are always newbies in the class and because the students respond to repetition, she explains.
As in the Malcolm X third-grade class, this group is also working with consonants. Horowitz points to a digraph -- two letters that make one sound, such as "ch."
In the word "beach," she asks, does the digraph come at the beginning or the end?
An earnest man raises his hand. "The beginning," he says. Students call out wrong and right answers as Horowitz asks one simple reading question after another.
From this class, people are paired with private tutors. Together, student and teacher work through 12 books. By the end, the student should have a basic understanding of reading and writing.
Horowitz says that she sees students who become more confident almost immediately.
She invites the class to come early the next week, eat an informal lunch and attend a book club for literacy students. They will read a booklet -- about the size of the Johnny Appleseed book -- of simply written letters from soldiers at war and discuss them.
"I'll bring a bunch of food," says one student as he bounds out the door.
3:20 p.m. Aimme Rogers, 22, sits cross-legged on the plush grass at Howard University. The sun is bright; the breeze easy. A senior jazz studies major, she is knee-deep in a sociology text. "I'm mad I can't read my pleasure book," the San Franciscan says. She reaches into her backpack and pulls out a Jennifer Crusie novel, "Bet Me."
She plans to read it tonight at bedtime, after a test. "That'll be my treat."
6 p.m. A baker's dozen of politically minded writers, including Sens. Robert Byrd and Bob Graham and pundits Bill Press and Eleanor Clift, sit at tables at the Trover Shop on Capitol Hill, selling and signing their books at the Hill newspaper's annual Political Book Fair.
Former Associated Press reporter Walter Mears hawks his "Deadlines Past: Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporter's Story." Washington, he says, used to be driven by books. Today "it's driven by talk."
7:45 p.m. The Futurist Book Group, co-sponsored by the National Capital Region Chapter of the World Future Society and Politics & Prose bookstore, is meeting near the children's section. This is one of the Washington area's more than 50 bookstores, many of which sponsor book clubs and author's readings. On this night, Kenyan author M.G. Vassanji is scheduled to give a presentation at Chapters, Michael Bohn is to read from his book about the Achille Lauro at the Olsson's at the Arlington-Courthouse branch, and upstairs in this store, Jon Lee Anderson is fielding questions about his new book, "The Fall of Baghdad."
The futurist klatch, five men and four women, engage in a spirited discussion of "Digital Soul: Intelligent Machines and Human Values" by Thomas M. Georges.
Bill Rowley of the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria says that if humankind continues to develop machines with greater and greater intelligence, "there is a possibility that we are creating our replacement."
Someone brings up the notion of "machinity" -- a robot's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of emotions. Someone else speaks of enslaving robots until their intelligence evolves. Limor Schafman, president of Fairfax-based Keystone TechGroup, asks: "How does the capacity to think prevent someone from being, quote-unquote, enslaved?" No one asks if robots will ever read books.
11:45 p.m. The day is almost over. Book groups have dispersed. Authors have met with readers and signed their books. Libraries and most bookstores are closed.
The city is quiet, but the books are awake and alive. All over Washington, book lovers are taking them to bed. Curling up with them. Devouring them.
To read is human; to read a great book is divine.
Brian Montgomery is reading of Nepal. Aimme Rogers can finally get to her Jennifer Crusie. Limor Schafman is moving through Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair."
At the L'Enfant Plaza Metro, Matthew Allen is waiting for the midnight train to Greenbelt. Allen, 22, just graduated from George Washington University. He wants to be a diplomat. For now, he sells books at the Borders Books & Music at Reagan National Airport. After a day of helping folks find schlocky novels and hefty tomes, he can read what he wants to. Like the poet laureate, he's working on "A Short History of Nearly Everything."
He likes to read himself to sleep, Allen says. "It's a good way to go, don't you think?"