It’s a Literate Life We Lead

Posted: January 11, 2013 in On Articles

Kaufman’s “Living a Literate Life” is obviously an article geared towards those heading into the teaching profession, but living a literate life is really something that can benefit anyone. I don’t think there are many people who could argue (successfully) that we need more people who are illiterate. We don’t see many fat, old politicians banging on their podiums and clammoring for less books for the children.. at least not yet. I suppose the question of what counts as a “literate life” is one with a bit of an unclear answer; is the high school student who begrudgingly reads The Scarlet Letter because he has to leading a literate life? This is an issue I myself had to deal with in High School. I loved reading to death, but not being able to choose what I read really turned me off of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I had to read The Scarlet Letter and The Grapes of Wrath, but for some reason, it wasn’t as easy to just pick up a book and go for me after that. I felt like I didn’t have the time. If not for my major, I still wouldn’t. I’m not sure why.

What about the weekly blogger who types up film reviews every Friday? Is she leadng a literate life? Does reading things like popular magazines or compressed news articles on a website count as literacy? At the beginning of many of my classes, I’ve been asked just what exactly is literature, and I came to the conclusion that literature is written work that expresses a truth. That definition is up for debate. I, personally, don’t count being well read in news feeds, twitter posts, or facebook walls as literate. I think leading a literate life means reading on your own accord, and throwing the occasional writing in there. Be you interested in novels, comic books, or even Dr. Seuss books, I consider that part of the path to literacy. My love for both literacy (and the horror genre, for that matter) was nurtured early on. When I was just a boy, around four or five, my mom would read to me every night before I went to bed. Usually from one out of a bookcase full of Goosebumps books (at my own request, mind you). But even before I went to my first day of Kindergarten, she had me fluently reading and being able to spell on my own. Neither of us knew it then, but she was setting me on a path that would consist of a lifelong passion for reading and writing, one that culminated in my arrival here at Chadron.

The area from Kaufman’s article where I’m definitely the weakest is the one where he discusses facing our difficulties with our own writing. I am my worst critic in everything I do. Damn near nothing is good enough to present to people, it’s a wonder I write for the paper. My dilemma is that I love to read short fiction (horror in particular), but I’m not brave enough to write it. I don’t think anything I can churn out would be good enough to present. I’m afraid I can’t do writing the justice that it deserves, and so I don’t pursue it as I should. Ultimately, I’m afraid to fail. But if I don’t dare to fail, I can’t improve. The area where I would be the strongest from Kaufman’s article is in living a life that I’m passionate about. You should see the looks and snotty questions I get when I tell people I’m a literature major: “What are you going to do with a degree in that?” I am pursuing literature out of a passion for reading and writing, not for the sake of a job. I know a man with a degree in zoology who works construction. Having a masters degree in today’s world is considered “over-qualified” to be anything but a teacher. Worrying about what my job will be 3 years from now is something I don’t have time for. I’d much rather be reading.

For developing my literate life this semester, I plan to cut out the excuses I have been making for myself. No more “I don’t have time to read or write what I would like to”, and no more “this won’t be good enough”. I’m going to push myself: I’m going to read the books I’ve been making a point to read for years but have never made the time for (in between reading for American and British lit).


  1. I think that high school English classes generally give students a very limited idea of what a literate life might be. Actually, most high school English classes probably give students an idea of the literate life that is the exact opposite of a literate life. I mean, when, in our real literate lives, do we do any of the things we ask high school students to do? Read only assigned books that are almost exclusively above their reading level; take quizzes on trivial details; read a certain number of pages each day; not read ahead (I used to get in trouble for reading ahead in books); write letters in the voices of the characters; write about what happens after the book ends, etc. Never! None of that is part of my literate life.

    So you are a writing perfectionist…. have you read Anne Lamott’s book about writing, Bird by Bird? She has a great chapter in there called “Shitty First Drafts”. Everybody, it turns out, writes shitty first drafts, even great writers. I hope you can find a way to give yourself permission to write a lot of shitty first drafts, because that is the path to a healthy and successful writing life!

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