Granted, we don't have to go very far back in history when even the mighty sovereign of the country needed to rely on outside help with documents of any kind. Especially writing was an art form and had to be done in fancy calligraphy, not an easy task. Generally speaking ordinary people did not read. Stories were passed on via oral tradition. With each memorization a word here or there was changed but it didn't really matter. The actors and actresses during Shakespeare's time had to be taught their lines through repetition, not so different from today's opera singers or, for that matter, most of young string players trained in the American Suzuki style. Music notation is another language, after all.
This method of memorizing one's part in a play meant that one had to actually relive the role during each performance. The role became the person and the person became the role, not necessarily a bad thing. If one forgot the exact wording, knowing the play intimately meant that the actor could substitute the line with something that could have been there in the first place.
That was then, today is now. We all go to school unless we live in a poor country where education is reserved for only chosen upper class members. A few countries, mainly sparsely populated Northern European ones, took pride in educating their children early on. Iceland with its tiny population and isolated existence is a fine example. Sagas based on Nordic heroes and, a little later, first inhabitants of the island were written some 800 years ago. As the Old Norse language changed very little over the centuries, it is said that today's schoolchildren can read the sagas with ease. In my home country, Finnish was considered a somewhat vulgar language for the lower class, and most writing was in Swedish, the official language of Sweden-Finland and spoken in the Finnish part by the "better" folks. Law books and other documents existed also in Latin. The first book in Finnish, based on western dialects as there was no "proper" form, was a translation of the New Testament by the Bishop Mikael Agricola, published in 1548. We are not as lucky as our Icelandic cousins, as although understanding that text is possible, it sounds and looks foreign with liberal use of alphabets not used in today's proper Finnish.
Statistics from 2007 show that 42 million Americans cannot read at all and another 50 million read at 4th grade level at best. 20% of graduating high school seniors is functionally illiterate at their graduation time. Illiteracy result is poverty and crime: majority of prison inmates do not know how to read. English may not be the easiest language to read as it is quite illogical with the way its spelling and pronunciation are related, but it is still written with the same easy-to-understand Latin alphabet as other European languages, other than those that use Cyrillic or Greek lettering. Finland's official literacy rate is 100% although with the large number of immigrants from places like Somalia the true number among adults may be somewhat lower. In America many prefer going to see the movie instead of reading the book it's based on. Back home it isn't an easy way out as all foreign films have subtitles and fluent reading is a must.
It is interesting how the Finns never pushed early reading. It is common that children don't read at all when they start school at the age of seven, yet by Christmas break most of them are fluent. I taught myself to read at three and also read music shortly thereafter. It was a shock to begin school and have the teacher start with alphabets, leading to simple syllables. By then, I had read our daily newspaper from Helsinki for at least a couple of years, and finished a sizeable amount of books. Some of those were quite thick; I loved encyclopedias and "How Things Work"-type of books, in addition to Moomin books and fairy tales. My first grade teacher was a dear and wonderful woman. During my first school day I had taken a pack of cards along and was playing solitaire outside during a recess. I could sense a certain worry or disappointment on my teacher's face. Perhaps she, as a religious person, connected cards to gambling and sinful lifestyle. After school I rushed to my mother's business and made her come with me to the local bookstore, in order to buy a small Bible. We found a beautiful one in powder blue and gold. The next day it was in my leather briefcase (I wouldn't use a backpack) and I showed it to the teacher, saying "I don't just have playing cards; I have this, too". I can still see her happy smile. Matilda Varama didn't believe in giving her students high grades: I got an equivalent to B- in both reading and music in my report card: to her it must have been like an A+.
Obviously the more one reads, the better the chances are that his/her writing is on a higher level. At times I make the error of reading comments and opinions which commonly follow an article online. The experience can be quite scary. Perhaps one in five is grammatically correct and without major spelling errors. Yes, as I wrote above, English is somewhat complicated. But how is it then that switching to a British site, most opinions are well written and thought out? Instead of blind rage, disagreements are just that, polite disagreements. Perhaps these sites sensor their content and don't publish the type of garbage so common on this side of the ocean. If so, the writer also knows that the rules and proper etiquette has to be followed in order to have his/her opinion read by others. Reluctantly I have to admit that foul comments and bad penmanship is all too common in today's Finland as well. I blame the culture of text messaging in part. People there are not likely to respond to an email, not to mention an actual letter on paper delivered via mail, but a short text will result in action. A former Prime Minister broke up with his girlfriend using texting: naturally she went public with it. Someone there wrote an entire book using his cellphone and such messages. I don't think such "progress" is good for a civilized society.
I intended to use this space to write about one of my pet peeves, the all-too-common musical illiteracy. However, it will have to wait for later as it warrants a long entry of its own.
My daughter Sarah at her favorite activity