David Baldacci, the best-selling author whose political thrillers entertain readers worldwide, will visit Hartford Tuesday to talk about his literary career and the importance of literacy.
Baldacci will speak on behalf of Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford, one of the programs that his Wish You Well Foundation supports nationwide. He and his wife, Michelle, founded the organization in 1999, naming it after his most personal novel, "Wish You Well," which was based on his mother's experiences in southwest Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
A former trial and corporate lawyer who now has more than 50 million books in print, he continues in his latest book, "Divine Justice," to write about the adventures of the Camel Club, a clandestine group of operatives led by a former CIA assassin known as Oliver Stone who investigate government wrongdoing and deliver their own kind of justice.
We talked with Baldacci via e-mail to learn more about his interest in promoting adult and family literacy.
Q: What led to the founding of the Wish You Well Foundation, and what kinds of programs does it fund?
A: Literacy is at the core of a democracy. Without a literate population you can't have a free and open society. It's a lot more important than lying on a beach enjoying the latest summer blockbuster. My wife and I saw the need for increased literacy support on our travels across the country. That led to our starting the foundation.
We've funded numerous programs, both large and small in over 30 states. We receive over 1,000 applications a year for support. We fund everything from early childhood learning to tutoring for ESL to prisoner peer literacy programs to broad-based community literacy programs servicing adults from all walks of life who are struggling to read.
Q: You've stated that reading is essential for a healthy democracy. Why is that so?
A: Being a fully participating citizen in a democracy requires a level of critical thinking and understanding that only comes with advanced reading and cognitive capabilities. If you live in a dictatorship your decisions are made for you. In a democracy that responsibility rests with you. Information is the lifeblood of any democracy. It is a political structure founded on words and the triumvirate freedoms of speech, press and religion.
In the current election, you [could] clearly see how being unable to read or comprehend information at a satisfactory level would put you at a tremendous disadvantage in deciding for whom to vote. And it also leaves you open to being manipulated by others who would rather you let them do your thinking for you. I believe Mr. Twain wrote extensively about that issue.
Q: Are you still collecting books at your readings and distributing them at food banks?
A: At every book signing I do, we collect books [donated by audience members]. With the economy cratering, the food banks are quickly going under water. The demand for food assistance has soared while the supplies from their food partners are drying up. It's the perfect storm, perfect for a disaster. Our applications for funding at WYW are probably up 30 percent.
Q: What will you be talking about at the Literacy Volunteers event on Tuesday?
A: Tales from the road, issues concerning literacy and the Mark Twain House. And we will collect books.
Q: What has your personal involvement in Wish You Well taught you? Have there been any surprises?
A: How great the need is and continues to be. The pleasant surprise has been how many dedicated individuals and organizations are out there trying to help.
Q: Wish You Well concentrates on improving adult literacy. What kinds of clients do the programs you fund serve?
A: Some of the organizations we deal with handle exclusively English as a Second Language patrons. However, most of our literacy partners deal with all sorts of folks in their community. Illiteracy has no boundaries, you find it everywhere.
Q: What are the most difficult roadblocks to learning to read for illiterate adults — the mechanics of reading? The embarrassment of admitting the problem?
A: The stigma of being illiterate is always a tough hurdle. But I would say juggling work, child care and other basic necessities in finding the time to sit down one-on-one with a tutor, week in and week out, to learn how to read is the greatest barrier. It is very labor-intensive and for adults struggling simply to pay the bills and take care of their families, it is not an easy balance.
Q: How can parents best instill a love of reading in their children ?
A: Setting an example by reading yourself. Kids emulate their parents. Have books all over the house, accessible to kids. Make it a family adventure. Encourage kids to read to you out loud, discuss ideas in a book and even rewrite endings they don't like. Make it a creative endeavor. Kids are naturally creative and love using their imagination. Writing is one of the most creative skills of them all. Exploit that to the fullest.
Q: Tell us a little about your latest book, "Divine Justice" (Grand Central, $27.99).
A: The Camel Club ventures to coal mining country. Oliver Stone is on the run and his path takes him to a place that might just be as lethal as the one he's running from.
• Carole Goldberg, a former Books Editor for The Courant, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
• David Baldacci's speech, "Beyond Words," will benefit the Literacy Volunteers organization and will be held at the Wallace Stevens Theater, 690 Asylum Ave., Hartford. General admission tickets are $50, and tickets that include a reception with Baldacci and preferred seating are $125. For information: visit www.lvgh.orgor call 860-233-3853.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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