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Literacy in an Illiterate State

New Mexico is a rough state. Among the 50 states, it ranks low in a lot of good things (economic opportunity, health care, infrastructure) and high in a lot bad things (crime). In education, it is #50, the absolute bottom of the pile. The overall literacy rate is 83.5%, which is bad enough, but recent data also shows that 76% of fourth graders and 79% of eighth graders are not proficient in reading, and 29% of adults read at the level of a 5- to 7-year-old. Compare those to global statistics that show the literacy rate for all males and females that are at least 15 years old is 86.3% and developed nations almost always have an adult literacy rate of 96% or better. Things are dire here.

I experienced this first-hand at a recent visit to a dentist. There was a man who couldn't fill out his new patient paperwork because he couldn't read it. Someone in the office sat there and read each question out loud to him, lots of personal questions about his health. So much for patient privacy. And even though this woman worked in a medical office with these forms all the time, she herself had a difficult time with many of the words on the form, like glaucoma and penicillin. 

Despite this sad deficit, Albuquerque has proven to be a city with plenty of people interested in reading and writing. 

I arrived in town at the start of NaNoWriMo, which has been great for me to meet other writers. There have been NaNo writing meet ups at four different libraries throughout the month. The Rio Rancho library (not technically Albuquerque) really went all out with a raffle for a nice gift basket filled with writerly things, and the library is actually purchasing a NaNoWriMo winners t-shirt for anyone who comes to one of their write-in dates and makes the 50,000 word count at the end of the month. The Cherry Hills branch also has a critique group that meets regularly, outside of NaNo.

All of these libraries also offer an array of book clubs, and they are all arranged on this web page so you can browse through and see what's upcoming in the next few months at all locations and which you are interested in. The "Reading Around the World" and "Voices" book clubs at the Edna Fergusson branch particularly interest me. 

The library system has both the Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the Public Library to support its programs. The Foundation brings big name writers to town, like Michael Cunningham, who I already have a ticket to go hear speak in January. And yes, of course I went to the Friends of Library latest used book sale and bought more books that I'm never going to get around to reading.

And the absolute best thing about the Albuquerque library system is that they have a brand new library. The International District library opened in summer 2022, at a time when other cities with far, far more tax dollars than Albuquerque has are slashing library budgets, and some cities are even closing libraries in response to book ban protests, Albuquerque opened a new library in one of its roughest neighborhoods. Despite the fancy-sounding name, the International District is a brutal place. Meth zombies roam the streets and every business has a security guard, or sometimes two. That city leaders decided to build this library here is a really good thing.

Moving on from libraries, there are lots of other spaces for reading and writing. There is one Shut Up and Write chapter that meets at Books on the Bosque on Wednesdays. This independent bookstore also hosts a variety of book clubs and lots of author events. 

A quick Google search shows at least a dozen other independent bookstores in town, but I'm trying not to go to them since I really, really don't need more books. Some are delightfully niche though, like Organic Books near my AirBnb, which focuses on local authors, and Don's, also close to me, which focuses on comics and seems to be quite engaged in the community.

I found this writing group on Meetup that doesn't meet very often, unfortunately. I couldn't make it to the one event they had while I was in town, and it doesn't look like the upcoming ones will jive with my schedule either, which is a bummer.

But I also found this excellent book club on Meetup and was able to attend the Circe discussion. The meeting was really well run and other attendees had some great insights. I enjoyed the discussion a lot and am looking forward to going again. Plus there are two other book clubs on Meetup in this area. So there is no shortage of places to find people who also enjoy the written word.

The Albuquerque Journal article I linked to at the beginning of this post says that "By far, the biggest negative home-influenced factor, Fascitelli (Albuquerque Public Schools associate superintendent of special education) said, is a "lack of exposure to the printed word," meaning an absence of books and other reading material in the home. These students often have little opportunity to visit public libraries, and they may have parents who do not read to them."

And finally, to encourage a love of reading among the little ones, all of the libraries run "Read to the Dogs" programs where kids come into the library and read out loud to adoptable dogs. There is nothing better in this life than books and dogs, and I love this program.