A IS FOR OX: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word, by Barry Sanders. (Pantheon, $23.) Illiteracy, everyone knows, leads to certain socioeconomic marginality. But even worse, according to Sanders, is what he terms "post-literacy''--a calamitous indifference to the written word. Without some immersion in reading and writing, Sanders argues in this richly complex work, we have no way of knowing who we and others really are; the written word gives us the detached perspective we need for reflection. Without it, we are lost in a house of mirrors, prey to the onslaught of sensory impressions generated by the electronic media--the whole cult of immediacy. This, Sanders says, is literally a matter of life and death; post-literate gang members, bundles of sheer impulse, do their "writing'' with a handgun, the burst of violence their only alternative to silence. Here, as elsewhere, Sanders sounds a bit overdramatic. But in his condemnation of the typically proposed cure--more computer power for our kids--he makes perfectly good sense. What our children need, he says, is not more hard-drive capacity but rather ordinary conversation and storytelling--a joyous engagement with the word that best begins at the mother's breast or on a father's knee. Only if a child first has this experience with language will he or she later accept the rigors of literacy training. A Is for Ox persuades us that post-literacy is more a social than a schooling problem; a love of words, from which the child constructs a meaningful self-identity, begins at home.
SCHOOL GIRLS: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, by Peggy Orenstein in conjunction with the American Association of University Women. (Doubleday, $23.50.) Interesting research has been conducted on the unique problems girls have in school, but with this book, perhaps the fifth or sixth in as many years, one wonders if political correctness isn't creeping in around the edges. Questionable assumptions abound. Girls, for instance, are once again reported to be much less assertive (and, therefore, less self-confident) in the classroom than boys, yet the male "confidence'' Orenstein describes often seems to be mere bravado--bravado that undoubtedly masks insecurities. Furthermore, Orenstein says girls are stigmatized for high academic achievement, but regular visitors to schools know that this is all too common for students of both sexes. Perhaps most perplexing is Orenstein's approving citation of a psychologist's claim "that high-achieving white girls are subject to unrealistic standards of success.'' This may be true, but it sounds a bit strange in light of the author's insistence that girls learn assertiveness, become highly proficient in math and science, and (here's the kicker) retain the compassion and empathy that is all too often portrayed as endemic to their sex. Just who has high expectations for whom?