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James Patterson, prolific author, tackles US illiteracy

American novelist James Patterson is on a mission. His goal is to get more people to read and to "draw attention" to illiteracy.

"People are indifferent and that's crazy," the best-selling author told CNBC's On the Money in an interview. "They're not understanding how essential it is, especially reading."

About 14 percent of the adult U.S. population—some 30 million Americans—can't read, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Literacy rates in the U.S. have remained about the same for the past decade.

The author of the popular Alex Cross series told CNBC that the rate of people who can't read is "stuck because people don't care enough." For his part, the author is tackling the issue with both his time and money.

The National Book Foundation just presented him with its 2015 Literarian Award, honoring the author's "lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading," praising his "literary activism."

Read MoreHow the 'queen of suspense' sold 100 million books

Last year, Patterson distributed one million dollars to 178 independent bookstores. He's also donated more than a million books to soldiers and school children.

This year, along with the Scholastic Reading Club, he's doled out $1.75 million dollars in grants to improve school libraries across the country, and he says he'll do the same thing next year. "The best thing I can do," Patterson said, "is let people know that your school library probably needs help."

Since his first novel was published 39 years ago, Patterson has become the most popular and prolific American author. He's written 147 books that have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, including several series for young adults, like "Middle School", "I Robot" and "Treasure Hunters."


Author James Patterson.
Bonnie Jo Mount | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Author James Patterson.

In another example of the author's efforts, this year he established his own children's book imprint, "JIMMY Patterson", and has pledged the profits from "JIMMY" books will go to pro-reading initiatives. He says the country must make reading a national priority, especially for children.

"Kids who are fairly bright, if they don't read broadly," Patterson told CNBC, "they won't be as good citizens." He added that "they won't be able to look at issues with intelligence."

Books, Patterson said, help readers sift through information and "understand how complicated things are," especially with respect to complex policy issues such as immigration.

"Don't give me simple minded…it's complicated and the more people read, the more they realize things are complicated," he said. And Patterson warns of the consequences of not teaching kids reading skills.

"If the at-risk kids don't become competent readers in middle school, how will they get through high school?" Patterson asked.

"Whether you read 'War and Peace' or whether you become a lifelong reader isn't as important to me as kids becoming competent readers," he said. "If they are competent readers, they can get through school and there are more possibilities for them."

Patterson told to "On the Money" that the "essence of getting kids reading" is that "everyone can do it, you can do it in your house, you can get your kid reading, and you just have to be firm about it."

Reading should be the rule at home from parents to their kids, he added.

"You don't let them track mud on the floor. And you say, 'We read in our house'. That's the deal," he said. "We read in our house and 'no' is not an acceptable answer."

"On the Money" airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.