The couponing of the American mind

IT IS a well-known axiom among members of my immediate family that if it were not for such organizations as Reader's Digest, Publishers Clearing House, and New Age Coupons, I would receive no mail at all. Approximately twice a week, I return to my 12th-floor walk-up to find an overstuffed envelope awaiting me.

``Congratulations, Louis Phillips!'' a typical envelope reads - in that easy computerized familiarity that sends chills up my spine - ``You may have already won $18 million. Simply return the enclosed forms within 10 days and you may be well upon your way to financial independence!'' Or something like that.

But it is also a well-known axiom that no matter how many gold keys I paste into place, no matter how many times I agree to subscribe to back issues of Hot Rod Intellectual Digest, no matter how quickly I respond to the questionnaires - yea, unto the Valley of Death, no matter what I do, I shall never win a portable radio or a T-shirt proclaiming better living through all-expenses-paid vacations. Yes, I know that somebody is going to win the grand prizes. Alas! That person will not be me. Or something like that.

The other day, however, as I was excavating yet another envelope of goodies, it occurred to me that organizations such as Reader's Digest and Publishers Clearing House could single-handedly eradicate illiteracy in America. Or at least they could aid the greening of the American intellect.

After all, it is a well-known fact - if we believe the recent diatribes against young people in America - that teen-agers and college graduates are notoriously ignorant about history, math, science, literature, etc. Our young people - and some adults I should add - know sports and television personalities, but remain blissfully unaware of Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Heidegger. They are frequently unaware of alliteration.

What would happen, do you suppose, if American households received envelopes offering millions of dollars in cash prizes if they would answer a few simple questions about the Civil War, or they would read and respond to Walt Whitman's ``Leaves of Grass''?

Instead of asking us to read pages of advertising so that we can earn extra dollars in prize money, suppose Publishers Clearing House and Ed McMahon sent us copies of poems, short stories, plays, or novels:

``Congratulations, Richard Doe! You have just received five poems by T.S. Eliot! Read each poem carefully, answer a few questions, and you will become eligible for a cash prize of $1 million!''

Instead of receiving coupons to save 30 cents toward the purchase of toothpaste or personalized stationery sets (what good are personalized stationery sets when the owners have nothing to write about and have no intention of writing anything?), we should be receiving coupons that say: ``50 cents off your next gallon of milk if you can recite from memory Robert Frost's poem ``Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'' or Hamlet's famous soliloquy.

If such a change took place in mail campaigns, don't you think people would start reading more and more carefully? Of course they would. It would certainly make standing in line at the supermarket a lot more entertaining.

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