What's the title of the last book you read?
What's the title of the last book you bought?
And, yes, e-books count.
I'm an author. My "in" box overflows each day with stuff that makes me wonder about the reading habits, if any, of my fellow Americans. Many seem to be wallowing in political conspiracy theories and expressing themselves using dubious grammar — both possible signs they aren't reading enough.
So ... Do you read books?
Do your children read books?
Is there a bookshelf in your home?
Do the members of your family enjoy reading not for the purpose of preparing for a test, not with the motive of securing a promotion in the workplace, but for the sheer joy of languishing on the sofa with a good story?
Between 2009 and 2012, I made 700 appearances at book signing events. I formed the impression, from observing the crowds, that while the youngest members of our population are curious and want to learn, their parents are holding them back.
I can't document the source but I've read the United States declined from No. 1 to No. 37 in literacy among the nations of the world between 1945 and 2005.
A 2010 survey by the Ralston Institute, a nonpartisan California think tank, concluded 2 million college-educated, adult Americans between ages 28 and 42 do not own a single book unless it was required for school or work. Those are the parents I mentioned.
A 2002 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics found 21 to 23 percent of adult Americans — or some 40 to 44 million of the 191 million adults in this country a decade ago — demonstrated literacy skills at the lowest level. These adults, the study told us, could perform "simple, routine tasks involving brief and uncomplicated texts and documents. For example, they were able to total an entry on a deposit slip, locate the time or place of a meeting on a form, and identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article." Some were unable to perform even these types of tasks and some had such limited literacy they were unable to respond to much of the survey.
As recently as just a few short years ago, my neighbors in Oakton had four bookstores nearby: Barnes & Noble in Fairfax, Borders in Fairfax, Borders Express in Fair Oaks Mall and Books-A-Million in the Oakton Shopping Center. The Borders outlet in Fairfax was making money but its parent company was not: When Borders Group, Inc., filed for bankruptcy Feb. 16, 2011, the company shuttered 20 percent of all bookstores in America, as measured by market value, in one overnight swoop.
Today, only Barnes in Fairfax survives. Thanks to a major shift in retail in recent times, you can now purchase books at Costco, Giant and Safeway — even my own World War II history, "Mission to Berlin" — but the selection of titles is small. Mainstream publishers are commissioning fewer titles today. Small publishers are creating more titles than ever but producing them in small numbers.
In bookselling, as in other fields of retail, more and more American consumers are "showrooming." That's the term for visiting a brick-and-mortar store, choosing the product you want, and subsequently ordering the product online from a different seller.
Their future is uncertain but bookstores have not entirely disappeared from America — yet. A new independent bookstore in Arlington, One More Page Books, opened its doors in January 2011 after two years of planning. Hats off to Eileen McGervey for having the courage to swim against the tide by opening a new retail outlet for literature. I'm unaware of any other independent bookstore in Northern Virginia that sells new books.
My thoughts above undoubtedly pose more questions than they answer. The path ahead is unclear but here are some possibilities: If you've been thinking of reading a book for the first time in a long while, do so. If you have kids, encourage them to read. If you know someone who is contemplating dropping out of school, urge that person to stay in. Above all: Buy books. Buy them, read them, share them and love them.
About me: My latest book, "Mission to Berlin," is a history of American bomber crews in World War II. I write magazine articles and newspaper columns. I like to read crime novels by writers like James Lee Burke, Stephen J. Cannell, Michael Connelly and Michael Gruber.