The guardians of all East Bay knowledge are high-fiving each other. A message has just shredded the silence of the Berkeley Public Library lobby on this hot, smelly Saturday afternoon. “ATTENTION, PATRONS: LITERARY HEADBANGING ON FLOOR THREE. THE COVER TO COVER READING PROGRAM PRESENTS ALTERNATIVE TENTACLES RECORDING ARTIST, BlöödHag! THE SHOW STARTS NOW! [screeeeeeee!]”
The feedback jolts groups of Asian students out of a highlighting haze. Indigent disabled folks look up from the free Internet terminals. “I don’t know how they’ll do it, but I’m in,” one librarian says to another.
Thirty feet above, a small conference room buried deep in the six-floor building is putting the BO in book. More than two dozen black-clad barbarians, all tattoos and leather, watch Seattle death-metal pro-literacy quartet BlöödHag set up for the afternoon’s show. There’s no stage, so setup takes five minutes. BlöödHag’s members wear slacks, white shirts, ties, and reading glasses. They look like tutors, except that lead singer Jake Stratton has huge lambchop sideburns and weighs more than two hundred pounds, and guitarist J.M. McNulty could take out four dudes with one ham-fisted pit punch.
Sound check: two loud wa-warrrrrrs on the guitar, and the band is ready to go. “Many of you will not be graduating this class,” Stratton says. And thus begins today’s lesson.
Formed several years ago by Stratton and McNulty as a four-track side project, BlöödHag is the subject of an award-winning, eight-minute documentary, The Faster You Go Deaf, The More Time You Have to Read. The band also has gained notoriety from appearing twice on NPR for interviews on literacy, and its latest album Hellbent for Letters has worldwide distribution on Alternative Tentacles, the label of former Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra.
Known for its 120-second songs titled after authors such as Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Silverberg, with lyrics that are wholly unintelligible, the band occupies a unique niche in the death metal scene: Educore, a genre the band coined to “beat some rock critic to the punch on pigeonholing us,” Stratton notes. His parents were library directors in the Midwest, and the rest of the band has equally strong literary ties.
They begin each show by pelting the audience with used copies of famous sci-fi titles, and they intend to round out this performance with a screening of Richard Linklater’s trippy, rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly at a movie theater in Piedmont.
“I think the English language is in danger of decay,” Stratton says. “If we have another hundred years of computers like the last hundred, we could be reduced to a purely symbolic language based on new hieroglyphics. Text messaging, ebonics — the richness of the English language is being lost. It’s a de-evolution.”
He isn’t totally crazy. The numbers are in, and they are much scarier than BlöödHag or any of us can imagine. America is going dumb. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the largest and most recent federal snapshot of reading we have in this country, we’re screwed.
The feds tested more than 19,000 adults ages sixteen and older and scored them from 0 to 500 points on prose, document, and quantitative literacy. While nearly everyone in America can read and write by age fifteen, the average prose literacy score of an adult is 275, an F by high school grading standards, but just barely “intermediate” as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics. Intermediate scorers earn anywhere from 265 to 339 points on the assessment, and are denoted by being unable to compare opposing viewpoints in a newspaper editorial; interpret a table with blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items.
The average American, in other words, can read, but cannot comprehend. The mean prose literacy score of US high school graduates is second to last among nineteen high-income countries. It’s not just the bottom 20 percent that’s testing stupid. The biggest losses in literacy over the past decade are among the intelligentsia. Those with college degrees scored an intermediate 314. Holders of graduate degrees averaged 340, barely proficient.
Maybe this is why Californians voted down the recent Proposition 81 bond measure to throw libraries $600 million: No one could understand the arguments for or against reading.
Linda Sakamoto-Jahnke coordinates the Berkeley Library’s literacy program, teaching hundreds of adults to read each year with the help of more than one hundred tutors and an annual budget that exceeds $100,000. I ask her if, like BlöödHag, she fears for a population who cannot compare editorials and hence cannot vote properly. Moreover, the older you are, the worse your prose literacy scores. Yet old people vote in droves. Does she fear for democracy?
Janke laughs. “I never thought of it that particular way.”
Press Play keeps at her. Is America doomed?
“It’s the way it’s going to be,” she says. “People who want to vote can vote regardless of background, race, or reading. We are all allowed to vote. That’s all I can say. It’s reality.”
I now understand the need for an electoral college, as well as BlöödHag’s constant escapism into other, smarter worlds. The band forgets its set list Saturday, so the musicians play off the back of their new album. Each short blast is introduced with a one-minute mini-lecture on the author, often accompanied by hoots and hollers from the tiny crowd. “People often think we’re doing a song about a particular author,” Stratton says. “It’s all biography. The second misconception is that we’re joking. We’re not.”
Indeed, BlöödHag had again roadtripped at a financial loss to play another mostly empty library in the name of literacy promotion. “We do it because they asked us and we hate letting libraries down,” Stratton says. “I hate letting libraries down. They’re there to protect all the world’s knowledge.”
Too bad nobody can understand any of it.