According to author Jane Smiley, "Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book." She's right. In the first quarter of 2012, the Association of American Publishers reported book sales of nearly $512 million. That quarter marked the first time adult e-book sales surpassed adult hardbound sales at $282.3 million, and they report that book sales in general continued to rise throughout 2012. Locally, Richelle Klug, director of the St. Clairsville Public Library, says that patron attendance at their branch rose a little over 11 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Reading is a complex sequence involving recognition of symbols (letters) in patterns (words) that relay ideas and information. The human brain puts all of those components together and draws upon memory and other cognitive abilities to create comprehension of the thought and, hopefully, understanding of the concept. "Other cognitive abilities" might tap into education, visualization, imagination and experience, depending on the reader.
Rooted in Sanskrit "radhnoti," meaning "he achieves or prepares," the word "read" evolved through Old English, Old High German and Middle English to mean "advise" and eventually the act of reading and its derivatives.
Rich Carpenter, left, parent, reads to a captivated audience at last year’s “Read Across America” day in Barnesville. The event is the largest in Ohio.
Of course reading itself has been around since writing. Even primitive societies developed identifiable symbols - animals, the sun, the moon, man - that gave members information. Later cultures came up with sounds then words then alphabets to record and pass along more complicated messages, distinguish similar words from each other and clarify past, present or future tenses.
In today's world, even in this time of texting, literacy skills are essential. Statistics say 85 percent of inmates in United States jails are illiterate, and, sadly, 50 percent of American adults cannot read an eighth grade level book.
Reading can be educational, entertaining and enlightening. One author wrote that television and movies tell the viewers what to think, but books stretch the mind. Using the example of a pink house, she noted that on the screen the house is presented for the viewer, but a reader forms his own picture of a house in his own color pink with or without window boxes and flowers, etc. Books give one the opportunity for creative thinking - and also for creative discussion.
As much as reading is considered a private activity, done alone, silently, next to a cup of a steaming beverage, reading can be equally as social. There are several venues that allow readers to join like-minded (or not) people and talk about books.
Social media enthusiasts can be part of Oprah's Book Club, started by Oprah Winfrey in 1996. It began as a segment on her show and ran monthly for awhile. Books ranged from the classics to the obscure, but sold millions of copies once they were on Oprah's list. When possible she would interview the author. The format has changed somewhat since her show ended in 2011, but the book club continues, now called Oprah's Book Club 2.0 (at www.oprah.com.) Discussions, author interviews and features take place online and via Facebook.
Libraries are not only good places to get books but to discuss them, too. Several Belmont County libraries have discussion groups, usually for adult readers. Barnesville's Hutton Memorial Library has an ongoing discussion group that meets monthly. The Victoria Read branch in Flushing is finishing an eight- part discussion of "One Minute After You Die" by Erwin W. Lutzer.
The St. Clairsville Public Library has an adult group that now meets one day and one evening each month and a teen book club that meets once a month. Amanda Gossett, program coordinator, says book titles are chosen based on the group's past interests, suggestions and what is available. Having the adult group meet both during the day and evening creates some flexibility and lets more people participate. She says members like getting together even during the winter months.
Sometimes a group of friends will form a book club to enjoy discussion and camaraderie. Such is the case with the RARE (Reading and Rowdiness Expected) Book Club. Several women in this group are former librarians, and members recount their earliest exposures to books through family members or teachers as instilling a lifelong love for reading. One of the members is designated "the leader," but each member chooses a selection and a month. Generally the friends meet for dinner with the book discussion following.
How does the book club change the reading experience? The RARE members say, "Discussing the books will sometimes point out something to me that I had missed or will clarify a point" and "I have read books I otherwise would not have chosen, so it has broadened my reading horizons. I also enjoy hearing other points of view in our discussions regarding concepts in the books."
Though his wife's book club meets at his bookstore regularly, more informal discussions take place all the time at Words and Music Book Shop in Wheeling, according to owner Alan Lestini. It opened at Stratford Springs in 1990 and has remained "fiercely independent."
"It's so much more than books," he notes. "It's a place to express, think and discuss." Lestini supports the local culture, carrying local authors, local music, some local art and a healthy selection of books about West Virginia. The store hosts book signings often, many with well-known authors like West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, New York Times best-selling author Wiley Cash and, later this month, former Ohio Congressman Bob Ney.
Lestini has firmly placed his shop on Facebook, but is not an electronic reader fan. "An e-reader is not a book. A book is a book," he says and points out that downloaded books are not owned and possessed by the purchaser as is a traditional book. E-books are subject to modifications and even eliminations by the publishers at any time. He also thinks that children should be steered away from more electronic devices and given real books to read.
"It's so important for kids to read - and to see their parents read," Lestini adds. "Kids do what their parents do. If they see their parents on smart phones and tablets all the time, that's what they'll do, too. If they see their parents relaxing with books, the kids will grow up reading."
Parents and kids will be reading next Friday, March 8 at Barnesville Middle School. "Read Across America" is again coming to the school, and it is officially the largest of the RAA events in Ohio. Denise Adkins-Leach coordinates the activities, bringing Barnesville Elementary students to the middle school to hear a variety of award-winning books read by local officials, businesspeople and state officials. More than 1,000 students will participate again this year.
Electronic or not, books seem to be more popular than ever, no longer a boring, lonely hobby. Book clubs and discussion groups are sparking conversation and community. As one RARE club member explains, "Others [members] said they have read books that they would not have picked, and that is true, but usually we have been surprised that we learned something [because of this.]"