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Jack Smith

Attacking illiteracy in the sumptuous confines of a Beverly Hills house that literacy built

January 15, 1986|Jack Smith

Someone you know may be illiterate.

The other day I received an invitation from Sidney Sheldon to attend a meeting at his home on the subject of American illiteracy.

Sheldon is the author of "The Other Side of Midnight" and several other super best-selling novels about sex, big money, power and international intrigue.

I first met Sheldon right after he had published his first book and was out promoting it at women's clubs, author's luncheons and the like. I happened to have a book out at the same time, and we would often be at the same speakers' table.

In the years since then Sheldon's books have sold better than mine, but I didn't know how much better until I drove up to his house.

It is a white two-story mansion on a hill off Sunset Boulevard near UCLA. A driveway curves up from Sunset to a large brick parking place in front of the house. A butler answered my ring. Sidney was right behind him. A staircase that reminded me of the Winter Palace in Leningrad rose from the vestibule to the second floor.

I drifted into a large white brocade living room where people seemed to be gathering. The ceiling was painted in soft clouds. The room looked out over a couple of acres of lawn to a pool a football field away. Beyond the pool a pool house glowed softly in the dusk. It was about the size of my house.

"This house looks as if it came from your books," I said to Sidney. Then I realized that of course it had come from his books.

Sidney's letter had been a call to action:

"I was recently made aware of a shocking statistic," it began. "Twenty-seven million adult Americans have never learned to read. I was appalled by this tremendous loss to our nation of human resources and undeveloped individual potential. For that reason, I agreed to become a national spokesperson for the Coalition for Literacy."

Considering the number of copies his books have sold, I was surprised that there were any illiterates in the United States.

He said the reception at his house was to be in honor of Dr. Violet Malone, director of the Coalition for Literacy.

"This is not a fund-raising event. Instead, it is a request that you become involved in some way with the coalition by contributing your own special gifts and talents to the task of helping other less fortunate Americans by opening up to them the bright new world of reading."

As the guests gathered, maids circulated among them with hors d'oeuvres; the butler served drinks; a buffet was set up in the dining room. It was not an entertainment industry crowd. There were newspaper people, radio and television people, coalition people, educators, corporation people, and two men and two women who were, or had been, illiterate.

After an hour of gourmandizing, Sheldon called us to order.

He said he was going to give us some statistics that were "terrifying."

He began, reading from a sheet of notes: "One out of five American adults is illiterate. In all, 27 million American adults are illiterate. They cannot read a help-wanted ad; they cannot read traffic signs; they cannot read the labels on medicine. Forty-five million Americans are semi-illiterate; 55% of white students, 80% of Hispanic students and 84% of black students do not have the skills to enter college.

"Among the 158 members of the United Nations, the United States ranks 49th in literacy. The illiteracy rate in the United States is three times higher than in the Soviet Union and five times higher than in Cuba.

"The Army and Navy are using comic books to teach recruits how to do things. One has five pages of pictures showing soldiers how to raise the hood of a truck.

"It's almost like being blind," he said. "You don't know what you're seeing."

He told of a woman who couldn't read labels, and knew the uses of household liquids only from the ads on television. "She gave her daughter a dose of liquid soap, thinking it was Pepto-Bismol. The ability to read opens up an entire new world to these people."

Sheldon introduced Dr. Malone, who said Sidney Sheldon had just written a check for the cause. She withdrew a folded check from her bosom.

"It's safe," she said. "I'm keeping it right here. It's for $50,000!

"Illiterates try to hide it," she said, "instead of asking for help. They aren't able to function but they try to bluff their way through. They're afraid to go anywhere for help. They're proud. But they're hungry; they're desperate to learn."

One of the young women who had been illiterate, but is now learning to read and write, told her story:

"I had an eighth-grade diploma, but I couldn't read it. It hurts inside. I cannot write yet. I cannot spell yet. But I will be able to do it. If you ask me for my address I will be able to write it down."

Someone asked if anyone knew what the causes of such widespread illiteracy could be.

"We don't know," said Dr. Malone. "There has never been any reliable data."

Sheldon said that 80% of the children in California's correctional institutions are illiterate. "Tomorrow's criminals."

If you've read this far, I assume you're literate.

But if you know someone who isn't, tell him or her to call (800) 228-8813, or, locally, 625-LEARN, and ask for help.

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