There are roughly 785 million adults worldwide who suffer from illiteracy. That translates into roughly 1 in 5 people on the planet who have zero or next to zero reading skills. I have a Master’s degree in English literature. I have taught high school English for the last eight years and I have loved books with an aching devotion my entire life. But I have a confession: I am that 1 in 5. This is not a “coming out” article where I reveal to the world that I have bluffed my way through my entire reading life and that I was able to survive academically and professionally with the aid of audio books and the purchase of college essays from the back of Rolling Stone magazine. To be fair, I consider myself a sharp literary detective with an appreciative eye for the deft turn of a phrase, but when you move with your family to a foreign country where English is most definitely the second language, you most definitely walk amongst the ranks of the illiterate. For the last nine months I have been able to fake my way through my impossibly German surroundings and mask my illiteracy with the help of a handful of iPhone Apps, a healthy dose of luck and a mouthful of bullshit. But for far too long I have played the role of the imposter, conning life like Dennis Weaver in the 1987 made-for-television movie Bluffing It:
The plot of the surprisingly entertaining yet mawkishly straightforward story follows a “clever” father who has faked his way up to the position of foreman in a Massachusetts factory. Unable to read or write, he must rely on his quick wits to survive. Unfortunately, he keeps rubbing up against simple situations that threatens potential humiliation. The two most memorable moments: 1) he makes a near “fatal” mistake when he cannot distinguish between the “Mermaids” and “Sailors” restrooms in a seafood restaurant and 2) he just avoids triggering a fatal car accident after suffering confusion over a jumble of traffic signs. This thankfully forces him to make a public admission: “I can’t read — help.” And like Dennis, I too am making a declaration: “I can’t read German — help.”
Fortunately, the plot of my new adventure in illiteracy leans more in the direction of the comical and mundane rather than the tragic and dangerous. Yes, I have stumbled into the wrong restroom on occasion, created a sea of soap bubbles in the kitchen after using what I thought was not hand soap and ordered what I thought was cooked meat and not mett, a raw ground pork, raw onion sandwich.
And Google Translating every single piece of mail, every bill, brochure, invoice, speeding ticket, parking ticket, bank statement, tax form, insurance form, dinner menu, cocktail menu, appliance manual, router, TV and cable manual, car manual, gas station pump instructions, back of the box cooking instructions, cleaning product instructions, recycling instructions, medicine dosage instructions, train schedule, bus schedule, flight schedule, park map, mall map, library map, meat counter, fish counter, cheese counter, bakery counter displays, etc., etc., etc., etc. can be just as exhausting as sitting for six hours straight in a mandatory traffic safety first aid class that is entirely in German. Like I said mundane and not dangerous (Although one could argue passing the traffic safety class without understanding a lick of German does inch me ever closer to the “Danger Zone.”) And I do admit a return trip to the Land of Literacy is only a touchscreen away where a stroll through the towering Matrix-like bookshelves of my iPad mini can on occasion satisfy my literary cravings and desires. But that’s not the point. Something was missing.
Back in Nashville books were everywhere. My shelves sagged under the weight of them. Bathrooms shared company with them. I slept under the towering shadow of them teetering Jenga like beside me on my night stand. If there was an empty space in my home you could be assured to find a pile of books positioned expertly with the gallery owner touch. And if you happened to be a one of my students, every day you walked into a classroom overstuffed with the wondrous weight of books, stacked perfectly unkept, the musty alluring scent greeting you at the door, motes of dust swirling the love of literature around through the air. Okay, I’ll take it down a notch, but my passion for story is DNA embedded and I knew, like author Tim O’Brien knew, that stories “can save us” and that “fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” So for me, during the first six months of our new life in Germany, here was the truth: I felt lost, alone and desperately in need of the sanctity of story to bring me back home. Sadly, all my stories and characters were locked away in crates awaiting departure for a three month journey across the North Atlantic to the empty shelves awaiting their arrival in Bremen, Germany.
Life without stories is well, for me, hardly a life, and it quickly dawned on me that one of the bigger effects of illiteracy may not be the struggles with the basic tasks of life, but that your life exists without the basic material feeding your dreams, goals and imaginations — not to mention those much needed moments of quiet reflection. Plus, an existence without a knowledge of the archetypal plots and characters we will rub up against in the future moments of our lives, puts us in great existential risk. Okay, enough waxing philosophic. I apologize for my melodrama here, but please consider the circumstances. My wife was overworked without much time for in depth conversation, my 14 month old sidekick, not only didn’t speak English, she hardly spoke language. My friends and family back home were a Facebook click away, but they were seven hours in “the past” and our moment of Venn was difficult to diagram. And to make matters worse, I didn’t even have the comfort of story to fill these holes. My goto characters and plots were trapped in crates somewhere on the North Atlantic on a slow boat to Germany.
I did find ways to try and satisfy this need for story, but to no avail. Television was a no go from the start. Watching CNN-International and episodes of the German crime drama Tatort, a 44-year Sunday night German tradition that verges on religious devotion, did not do the trick. I bought a handful of DVDs but quickly learned they were formatted for European computers and the fact that we did not have a DVD player in our temporary housing, and Netflix had yet to cross the Deutschland borders, posed a problem. We did have a stack of Tallulah’s baby books, which on occasion I found myself reading way too deeply into the characterization of Sandra Boynton’s Pajama Time and was convinced the madness of my current situation was thematically aligned with Max’s character arc in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
One of the few places where I quickly found refuge was the many local bookstores in Verden and Bremen. Whenever I needed a quick literary fix I would push myself through the aisles, glancing at the German translations of titles, hoping to make eye contact with an old familiar face. Maybe today I’d see Vonnegut or Hemingway or have the good fortune of running into Twain. Is that Woolf and Plath over there walking in the streetlight? Yes, once in a while I even tried to make conversations with the not-so-fictional shop owners, desperately hoping that a long literary conversation would ensue. It never did. Finally, I began hunting for specific titles, looking to purchase the German translations of my favorite books as trophies to be displayed on our return trip back home. They would also later become a quality resource for German class, but that was six months away. The first discovery was an easy one. I found it jammed in the musty trench of an aisle of the War section in a used Verden bookstore: Im Westen nichts Neus or better known to my students as All Quiet on the Western Front. “Wir liegen neuen Kilometer hinter der Front.” I may have not been nine kilometers from the front, but my heart raced as I wound my way back to the apartment to share with my wife the great news of my literary reunion. Two weeks later I met the great one, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Der große Gatsby. And one afternoon, while strolling through the local mall bookstore, I bumped into an angsty teenage Holden Caulfield from Salinger’s Der Fänger im Roggen. He was quite a phony, I might add. But it wasn’t until a few months later that I finally stumbled onto what I consider the Holy Grail of literature: Wer die Nachtigall stört.
Before she was even born I had a name picked out for our daughter. She would be named after the novel’s narrator/protagonist that sits on the “top shelf of my heart”:
To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout Finch. Not the most popular name choice, I know, unless you are huge Demi and Bruce fans, but my insistence and passionate plea landed Scout in the middle of our daughter’s name.
As a writer and an avid reader I am aware of the thematic importance of naming characters, and as father I believe that naming daughters, and choosing just the right name, would serve as a reminder of the values I would try to instill in our baby girl. Like the novel’s protagonist, I hoped our ‘lil Scout would be idealistic, curious, a little rowdy a times but always loving and bright. I hoped she would be an avid reader like her dad who never backs down from a fight and always yearns to speak her mind. I would help her see that fear and ignorance can be the same thing and sometimes in life it is okay to make compromises but never compromise on your beliefs. And if she was a boy, you better believe the name Atticus was my top choice. For me, Atticus has always been my guiding light ever since my own lawyer father left my life over 20-years ago. My literature dad taught me to value wisdom, compassion, toughness and always maintain an unwavering ability to see and treat everyone equally. His values form the basis of my teaching philosophy and beats at the core of my own fatherly ideals. He is why I know fictional fathers can sometimes teach us more than the real fathers in our homes. And what we learn from our fictional fathers can ultimately make us more reliable and loving parents in our real homes. All this from a book, but this was no ordinary read, at least to me.
Like most pre-teen middle schoolers, I was intrigued by my first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird. The world Lee created was instantly relatable to a 12-year old me and I remember feeling a connection to the characters, especially Atticus, Scout and Calpurnia. But it wasn’t until my wife and I were caught in the soul bruising and doubt-inducing throes of infertility that I truly felt the gravitational pull of the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama and especially of the special bond between Atticus and Scout. This book was my bible, and I thumped that text with religious faith, hoping for the day of creating the precious bond shared between father and daughter Finch. Yes Mr. O’Brien story can save us and “fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” My truth was born on a crisp afternoon in October.
Life is back to … well, I wouldn’t say normal, but nonetheless, books fill every nook and open flat space throughout our German apartment. Last I checked Moby Dick is awaiting me in the bathroom and On The Road stares daggers at me from my night stand. Have ignored Kerouac far too long. My tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird now sits side-by-side with its German cousin on a bookshelf in my daughter’s room somewhere in the vicinity of Pajama Time and Where the Wild Things Are. And I know no matter where I will be in the years to come, and no matter if I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Bremen, Germany, Nashville, or on the outskirts of some foreign city in who-knows-whereville, Harper Lee’s one-hit-wonder will always serve as beacon back home into the Maycomb of my heart.
A few days ago I decided to forgo the usual nap time book rotation and this time I cracked opened the dog-eared copy of my daughter’s namesake book. We got cozy and I began, “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play –” she said no and grabbed for “Where the Wild Things Are” that was sticking out beneath my leg. I could only smile. Dat’s my Scout.