SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A visitor well versed in Southern stereotypes might be disappointed to discover that the indigenous people of this upstate community harbor a passion not for a benighted Confederacy, but for literature.
In fact, few places in the nation are doing more to advance literacy than this historic textile mill town, where books are free and reading is rewarded.
Last week marked the second year of Spartanburg High School's summer reading program, an innovative approach to literacy that is the brainchild of Kathie Bennett, an international flight attendant and mother of a local high school student.
Bennett credits her own love of books to a fortunate education at Sewanee, the University of the South, where she got to meet some of the authors she read. She wanted to give Spartanburg children the same opportunity in hopes of cultivating a love of reading.
With other like-minded citizens and teachers -- and a determined principal named Rodney Graves -- the summer reading program is flourishing with 100 percent participation.
Here's how it works: Students pick a book from a selection of eight and voluntarily read it over the summer. When school reconvenes in the fall, some of the books' authors visit to read and discuss their work.
As extra incentive, students who have finished their books -- and produce a paper or other project -- are given four points that can be used in any class to raise their grade. It's a win-win deal, with a bonus lesson in free-market economics. Work and be rewarded.
Although most schools have summer reading programs, this one is unique for a couple of reasons. One, the books are gifts to the students, purchased through state literacy grants and the generosity of donors who believe, as Graves put it, that anytime you give a kid a book, "you're changing a life." In many cases, these students have never owned a book.
Also, the Spartanburg community, not just teachers, participates in the program. Between 75 and 100 citizens, including Mayor Bill Barnet, volunteered to read the books and participate in classroom discussions.
I was a visitor to the program this year -- asked to stand in for my friend, political cartoonist and author Doug Marlette, who was killed in July in an auto accident. His first novel, "The Bridge," was one of the books selected. Other speakers were North Carolina poet and author Ron Rash, who read from his novel, "The World Made Straight," and Florida writer Janis Owens, another Marlette buddy, whose novel, "The Schooling of Claybird Catts," led last year's program.
It was a sad three days for friends and fans of Marlette, but he would have been delighted by the sight of almost 2,000 students crammed into a gymnasium to hear authors talk about reading and writing. "The Bridge" resonated with this audience, not least because it details the history of the textile mill uprising of 1934, but also because Marlette was without peer in taking down the pompous and politically correct with a wicked sense of humor and a gimlet eye for false virtue.
The immeasurable reward of Spartanburg's program is familiar to all readers -- discovery of new worlds and insights that otherwise might be unavailable. This is especially true for the Internet/iPod generation, for whom information and entertainment are passively received with the click of a button.
Reading, by contrast, requires participation -- a little give-and-take between writer and reader. Marlette often lamented the trend away from reading, which had given him so much joy as a child, toward activities that deliver programmed material rather than engage the human spirit.
He, like Rash and Owens (and I), belonged to a generation of children who had to entertain themselves with their own imaginations. That task was aided considerably by weekly visits to the public library, a sensory treat -- enhanced by then-rare air-conditioning -- that promised adventure, romance and escape.
To read, we learned, was to live greatly.
Spartanburg students seem to be getting that idea, as are literacy coaches elsewhere. The reading program will be replicated in 12 other schools across the state. One educator visiting from New Zealand plans to create a similar program back home.
In a time when American literacy is in decline, Spartanburg citizens and teachers seem to have made an important discovery: Give a kid a book and he just might read it. Maybe he'll write one someday.