NPR Story Corps: Learning To Read

NPR Story Corps elicits the same reaction in me as an interviewee of Barbara Walters – I usually get misty. This story was no different. Here’s a bit from the website:

“Joe Buford, 63, has a high school diploma but kept a secret, even from his family: He couldn’t read.

“I could memorize things,” he says. “I call it drawing the words …. Nobody in my family really knew how bad it was with me and how hurt I was over it.”

Buford’s wife didn’t know about his reading problem until after they were married, he says.”

He goes on..

“Before Buford had children, he worried that “what was wrong with me would be passed on to my kids.” He was afraid they wouldn’t learn to read. “It just broke my heart,” he says.

He was terrified of the prospect of having to read to his young daughters. “

It never fails to amaze me how far people can get on such little education. This gentleman has gone through the education, medical, and tax systems not knowing how to read. He’s raised a family, held a job and gone through every day life with an over arching fear and shame that was finally lifted in his mid-60’s.

Definitely a testament to the “never too late” approach to self development, but also inspiring from a community perspective. Here was a volunteer who spent time with him, helped him learn, in an environment that was safe – in this case an adult literacy center in Nashville.

“I jumped up and ran through the house. It made me cry and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it really is sinking in.'”

That is exactly how I felt (sans crying) when I first learned to read. So excited, so enthusiastic about learning – on my way to being a student of life and those around me.

To read more or listen to the program, click here

For a search on adult literacy at the SPL, click here as well as their literacy section.


Meeting Diane Cowles in Breacon Hill…

A little bit ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Diane Cowles, librarian of the Beacon Hill Branch. I love hearing about various branches from those who work there and know them best. I always learn something new!



Diane Cowles


Beacon Hill Branch 


What is your favorite word?  



What word do you wish you had made up?   


How did you become librarian of your branch?   


When Beacon Hill was a Station Library, I was the only librarian there when the SPLASH after school program was initiated.  I’ve loved the Beacon Hill neighborhood so much I haven’t left since.

What is on your desk right now?


Notebooks, photos, files, receipts, calendar, books and more books.

Tell us about your library.


The Beacon Hill Library is brand new and definitely an improvement from the old storefront building that used to be a store, in which we were housed since 1962. 

The new building has become the community’s living room, attracting multi-ethnic mix that is Beacon Hill.  Likewise, we welcome new immigrant families to a variety of ESL and cultural programs. 

How long have you been at the branch? 


18 years 

What other posts do you hold in your community?

Advisory Board of Helping Link

What is the biggest impact the capitol campaign has had on your branch?


It has brought us a brand new beautiful building that provides the neighborhood with many new features, such as space for a bigger, deeper collection, meeting rooms, and many more computers.

How does your relationship with the community affect your programming?   


I have been a constant presence at the 4 elementary schools and Jefferson Community Center over the years, so have come to know a great many families that way.  Getting to know first hand the issues that affect immigrant and established families on Beacon Hill has made me sympathetic/empathic and consequently, our programming tries to help and inspire as much as possible.

There She Was Again…Another Glimpse of Nancy Pearl

From one of her biggest fans! (particularly moi, on the Friends Board) 🙂

My Day Today
Today, I had to take the car in to the mechanic and there was only one bright angle to that – I got to go into work late enough to hear Weekday on NPR – and guess who was kibitzing? Nancy Pearl, her latest happenings and a book list to boot. It was, in short, a little treat in my day.

In my best New York accent – I luv hah.

Nancy Pearl’s Adventures
She talked about her recent trip back east to do some library projects, but her excitement was around getting to be in the buildings featured in some of the stories of her childhood. How exciting is that?? How great would it be, if we could visit the house of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the actual Yoyodyne lab, or Ninja Turtle studio? Ok, so I just threw the Ninja’s in there for an age group I can’t identify, but it would be neat to reflect in a space that inspired the characters that inspired us as children.

Many author’s homes are open to the public. Edith Wharton’s Estate happens to be in question at the moment, but Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain – to name a few are still quite popular – not to mention the debt Canada owes L.M. Montgomery in tourism to PEI.

Nancy went on to talk about The Betsy-Tacy series, Maud Hart Lovelace (e.g., Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Betsy’s Wedding, Emily of Deep Valley) – and all the places she got to see and I have to confess, for a second I thought I was right there with her. Every time I hear her speak, her love for what she does beams through the radio – I hope to meet her one day.

Her recommendation to A Guidebook of Mankato Places aside (because it reminded me of a fact I try to hide: that I know all the trivia about all the episodes for Little House on the Prairie) I was pleased that this time, I had some inkling of many of the suggestions on her booklist – specifically A Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen.

The Point of This Post
Nancy and the Weekday Host were discussing how the end of the cold war brought an end to great thrillers and spy novels as the clear enemy went away, moral gray areas with respect to espionage started to bring about most mysteries. The concept that resonated with me so profoundly, and one I would want to get an interesting dinner party together to talk about (Nancy of course would be invited, along with Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Terri Gross and other interesting people) was her questioning why The Soldier’s Heart didn’t perform as well in the market place as Reading Lolita In Tehran. They both deal with the same topic. Soldier’s was written by a civilian who teaches literature at West Point. The author talks about teaching literature to men and women who are going off to war in Iraq. It’s about the conjunction between literature and life and Lolita has a similar theme, a teacher teaching literature to a group of determined students in spite of oppression.

This is why I love Nancy Pearl and she makes the cut every time to the question “If you could invite 10 people to dinner, dead or alive, who would they be?”

Soldier’s highlights the historical influence West Point had on the Civil War as it was the only war where classmates from the same graduating class found themselves on opposite sides, and how divided the institution became as a result. I would add to Nancy’s observation my thoughts on Lolita from a lecture I attended by the author some years ago – which was standing-ovation-fantastic.

Lecture Overview on Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi came to Seattle in 2006 to promote her book. I was moved by her speaking and wondered how many people were truly able to empathize with her message given that no one in the audience has ever lost the right to read. Her main theme was intellectual freedom.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is, in part, a memoir focused around Nafisi’s experience in the mid-1990’s of leading a small group of Iranian women in reading and discussing classic works of English and American literature – works which were forbidden and considered decadent by the government.

Her theme addressed the importance (and loss) of imagination in the development of nations. She mentioned that without imagination, you will be deprived of other aspects of your life. This statement reminded me of Ben Franklin’s claim that he would rather lose all rights but the freedom of speech, through which he would win all the others back. Azar riffed on imagination as a theme citing phrases like: “imaginative knowledge”, “Curiosity is insubordination in the most innocent form” and referring to Tolstoy’s definition: imagination is looking at the world through “washed eyes.”

She learned at an early age that reading was a transportive act, giving her the ability to go anywhere. This freeing of the mind in times of oppression presented a place of freedom and connection with others. If one reads a lot, one carries the world with them. Twain, Flaubert, Dostoyesfsky, etc.

She went on to extrapolate her theme more broadly….looking at nations. “Home” (and one’s own nation) is a place to question and re-question. That one (implying “nations”) should question themselves or else they develop a smugness of someone comfortable and unchallenged. Every nation has something to be ashamed of. Every nation has the right to change and grow. That right should be a god given right.

Harriet Beecher Stowe did not have the right to read her own lectures when she was touring in the UK, her husband had to read them. – bc it was “the UKs culture at the time.” In the east, the death scene in Swan Lake is removed and Desdemona’s suicide is removed from Othello so it “doesn’t depress the people” yet they stone a woman to death “bc it is their culture.” Resignation to others’ plight is dangerous business.

People understand the importance of individual rights and individual integrity. If they quote literature it’s bc they tried to preserve the best humanity had to offer in a time when humanity was lacking. When people were deprived of everything and they were on the way to the gas chambers, they quoted Flaubert. The mind is the last frontier and cannot be conquered. Even when the oppressors have taken everything away, you have the choice of what attitude you adopt. It is a constant “no” to the banality of the totalitarian regime.

People see activism as separate from the experience of the mind. In the west, what threatens us is our sleeping consciousness. In order to have the ability to empathize, we need to produce works of imagination. She was critical for a moment, and it was most powerful when she went on to state that

“American values used to mean something real and concrete. Huck Finn ponders the question: should I give Jim up? He had been taught that to harbor a slave meant that you would go to hell. But he thought about Jim in the morning and Jim in the evening and Jim was his friend. Huck made a decision to help Jim – he was “going to hell.” American values meant the ability to make a tough decision by way of self analysis. Now….we sleep. Imagination (innovation, alertness) is the key to development (into maturity) and we risk losing it.”

Definately something to consider in response to Nancy’s question on book sales with respect to Soldier’s v Lolita. Maybe a little heavy for most dinner parties, but over your next cup of coffee perhaps.

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