This magazine was created to fill a void left by the retreat of newspapers from their traditional role of literacy advocates. There was a time not too long ago when every newspaper in this area, especially Mississippi, had a book page, if not an active books editor. Today there is not a single books editor in our circulation area of New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the entire State of Mississippi.
This process has escalated during the past 20 years, reaching warp speed in more recent years with the decision of a major newspaper chain, Gannett, to downplay or eliminate book reviews as a regular feature in their newspapers. That is a significant blow to literacy advocates.
The Clarion-Ledger, a Gannett-owned newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, is an anomaly in that it has a weekly book page, but it does not have a books editor and it is not staffed by the newspaper. The book page is the brainchild of local businesses that pay for the reviews and author interviews themselves as a community service. We are glad it exists, but its permanence is questionable.
This abandonment of books by newspapers has had a significant impact on literacy. In Mississippi and Louisiana only 84 percent of adults possess basic prose literacy skills. Tennessee does somewhat better with an 87 percent literacy rate. To some those rates may sound great. But when you compare those rates to the rest of the world, the following countries, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, have higher literacy rates: Cuba, Vietnam, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Albania, and Argentina, to name a few.
In actual numbers that gives Mississippi 480,000 residents who cannot read, Louisiana 752,000 residents who cannot read, and Tennessee 819,000 residents who can’t read.
Those numbers are simply not acceptable.
If you can’t read, you can’t responsibly exert your precious voting rights.
If you can’t read, you will never understand your country’s history.
If you can’t read, you will be taken advantage of your entire life.
The New Orleans Review of Books soon will be operated under the direction of a non-profit organization, the Foundation for Literacy by the Book. Under the Foundation’s direction, additional book review magazines will be published in other parts of the country, published with the dual goal of promoting literacy and providing authors in a defined region with reviews of their work. As we create a greater awareness of the writers in a specific region, we will target learning deficiencies by creating programs designed to improve reading skills of the individuals who live in that region. Revenues generated by the magazine will go to the foundation, which will also accept funds from individuals and foundations.
Compounding the high illiteracy rates in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee are those other statistics that give one pause. Take Mississippi, for example. When you combine incidence of mental illness with incidence of intellectual disability, almost one in three Mississippians is in need of professional help. Louisiana and Tennessee are not far behind Mississippi.
Residents of Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee need inspirational biographies, fiction and history books that target the strengths and failures of their region—and they are not getting them because such books are being blocked in favor of books about other regions and countries.
We call our circulation area the Mojo Triangle. It is a magical place where all of America’s original music was created and a good deal of its great literature. It is now ground zero for the moral and intellectual rot that has infected the body politic of this nation. One way to fight that rot is with books. They are out there, just not where you can readily find them.
Until now you had no place to go to read about new books about your region.
Now you have us. We are free—and always will be.