Personally, I’ve always been a little skeptical of “literacy campaigns,” particularly when conducted by politicians and their mealy-mouthed spouses, simply because literacy is such a safe political bet. After all, there’s no anti-literacy platform. It’s like fire prevention. Nobody ever argues in favor of wildfires, just like there’s nobody out there tub-thumping for illiteracy. But in Texas, at least, illiteracy needs no apologists. That’s because illiteracy is doing mighty fine all by its lonesome. In fact, if illiteracy were a horse at the track, 10 would get you 20.
Here’s some hair-curling data: According to Literacy Texas—a non-profit advocacy coalition—our state has the 47th-lowest English literacy rate in the nation, and only 3.6 percent of the 3.8 million Texans in need of adult basic education services receive them. Texas ranks dead last in citizens with high school diplomas or GEDs, and, by one estimate, dropouts cost the taxpayers $9.6 billion a year.
These facts have all sorts of ghastly repercussions. We all know that people with less education make far less money, but according to the U.S. Department of Education, 50 percent of the chronically unemployed are functionally illiterate. Over 70 percent of U.S. inmates can’t read above a 4th grade level, and 85 percent of all juveniles in the juvenile court system are illiterate. And aside from the unpleasantness of poverty and prison, illiteracy can, quite literally, kill. Medication errors caused by misreading prescription labels are estimated to cause up to 7,000 American deaths a year, and the Northwestern University Medical School has ranked “low health literacy” second only to smoking as a predictor of mortality.
All of this is, admittedly, pretty bleak. But I just returned from the Pulpwood Queens Book Club’s annual Girlfriend Weekend, which was anything but bleak, and which accomplished more for literacy than any other event I know. For those of you who’re unaware, the Pulpwood Queens—a tiara-wearing, leopard caftan-clad bunch of engaged and avid readers—happen to be the world’s largest “meeting and discussing” book club, with more than 400 chapters, comprising thousands of (mostly) ladies in 10 different countries. The Queens’ motto is “Where Tiaras are Mandatory and Reading Good Books is the Rule,” and every January they host a shindig called Girlfriend Weekend in the picturesque East Texas hamlet of Jefferson, where hundreds of people converge to hear some of America’s best writers discuss their work. This year, during the 11th annual Girlfriend Weekend, such luminaries as Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, Jeanette Walls and Mark Childress joined the madding fray, along with dozens of less famous—though equally fabulous—authors, like yours truly. Besides all this bibliophilia, there’s a costume ball (Fannie Flagg turned up as an inspired Pippi Longstocking), a talent show, a film festival (featuring Mary Murphy’s fascinating new documentary on Harper Lee), and an author-staffed supper (trust me, you haven’t lived until Pat Conroy has taken your drink order).
The whole wild, rhinestone-glinting whirl that is Girlfriend Weekend is the brainchild of one Kathy L. Patrick, who, aside from being Head Pulpwood Queen, is the proprietor of Jefferson’s Beauty & the Book, the world’s only beauty parlor-slash-independent bookstore—and, in a new partnership with Random House, is the hostess of an online, book-themed talk show, also called Beauty & the Book. On her show, Patrick combines her talents to perform Texas-sized makeovers on writers like Karen Abbott, author of a new biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, while chatting about literature and relaying her book club’s questions.
Patrick’s great aim is to enliven reading, to infuse the consumption of serious literature with as much voluminous verve as an East Texas hairdo. This, all by itself, is a marvelous contribution. But a more tangible contribution is the money Girlfriend Weekend collects every year to combat illiteracy in Jefferson’s Marion County, which has a shocking 39% adult illiteracy rate. During this year’s Girlfriend Weekend, Patrick and the Pulpwood Queens raised roughly $6,000 for the local Dolly Parton Imagination Library program, enough to provide every single child in the county with one book a month for free, from birth through the start of kindergarten. The Dolly Parton program, which distributed over 6 million books in 2009 (and enjoys enviable state sponsorship in Tennessee), has been shown to improve reading skills, not just among the children to whom it gives books, but also among their mothers. As Literacy Texas would surely tell you, that’s not just a life-enhancing contribution, it’s a lifesaver.