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Oakton Opinion: Got Books?

Have you read a book recently? Your kids?

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Nate Wilburn July 17, 2012 at 09:12 PM
The last book I read was "Nor the Years Condemn" by Justin Sheedy. I am currently reading the last book I bought, "Mission to Berlin" by Robert F. Dorr. I have two teenage sons to whom I read numerous books to when they were in the "impressionable" years; toddlers through grade 6. Everything from Dr. Seuss, the classics, to the Bible and even Marvel comic books. It seems the school's curriculums now push kids to use computers more and more. Now, because there are no keyboards, monitors or a mouse hooked to the books in my extensive personal library, my sons do not spend as much time reading as I did as a teenager, although they have every opportunity. I have younger friends and co-workers who have various e-book readers, but to me, part of the wonder of reading is the feel of the book in your hands, the turning of the page, and being able to judge progress in reading by the amount of pages turned or needing to be. I cannot bring myself to read a book on a computer screen. We have a Barnes and Noble and a Hastings in Great Falls, Montana, and one used book store that is full of mainly paperback romance and pulp stories. Not enough book sellers in my opinion. Thank goodness for websites that pander to book worms like myself, such as Amazon and ABE Books. Soon the Bradbury classic "Fahrenheit 451" will have to be revamped to include the melting point of Nooks and Kindles.
Dan Vandenberg July 19, 2012 at 07:30 AM
I've always loved reading books. And I'll always pick and read anything written by Robert F. Dorr. He is a master of his craft - which is not something one can say about most aviation authors. He is right up there with the great Bill Gunston, in the sense that any editor leafing through their manuscripts can just sit back and enjoy - the perfection is routine. Yes, it's tragic that more folks don't - or won't - appreciate the work of authors, poets, writers and journalists. Books are special. The good ones help us to recover from a bad day in the office (and, let's face it, a good day as well!). My antidote to the daily grind also includes flying airplanes. Listening to music, reading books, flying airplanes - oh, and the odd drop of red wine now and again certainly doesn't do any harm, either. I'm now off to my local bookstore to buy "Mission to Berlin" on the strict understanding that Mr Dorr will buy a copy of my debut thriller "Codename Capella". I'm about halfway through writing it and so far it's been a blast. Should have done it years ago. Sometimes the words just flow as if something beyond my imagination is driving the narrative. Let's hope the final result manages to take off. Very best wishes from England and Dan Vandenberg.

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