Anyone who has ever helped me move - and it's happened more times than I want to think about - ends up at some point during the day asking me why in the world I own so many books. (And couldn't I have packed them in smaller boxes?)
I love books. I love characters, real and imaginary; I love finding out new things or better understanding old things; I love going to a movie and being able to say "Oh, the book was much better." Now, it may be true that I could stand to let go of a few - that college biology textbook is really only serving to weigh down the bottom of one of my shelves - but I also love being surrounded by all those words.
I grew up in a house where the walls were lined with books, and even in the Internet age, I am as likely to cross the room to grab my dictionary as I am to check out a dictionary website. Books were constant, useful, friends and foes. They sparked my imagination to such a degree that I asked my parents to get rid of a book my father had about the old Universal Studios movie monsters because I was convinced they could rise from the pages and get me.
Having the benefit of a home in which reading was important and encouragd, I was sometimes surprised to find out when other kids' parents did not make reading a priority. But those kids were in the minority, way back when. Today, I see attempts from students who have been promoted all the way through elementary and sometimes even middle school, apparently unable to read, write or spell at the most basic level. Time and again, when I ask about this deficiency, teachers say they are doing all they can during school hours, but that they are not receiving any backup from the homes. Don't even try to ask why these kids are being promoted right along to high school if they cannot even read.
Something has broken. Something that was important is going away. I have actually heard parents complain when they believe their child has received too much reading homework, because they don't want their kids to be "stuck in a book" all the time. In a lot of cases, the alternative for those same kids is to be stuck on a couch playing a video game or glued to their computers.
According to Literacy Volunteers of the Mid-Ohio Valley, in 2013, 10 percent of people in Wood County did not have adequate reading skills or were reading at the lowest levels. Ten percent! A group called DoSomething.org says two-thirds of students who could not read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up either incarcerated or receiving public assistance. And nearly 85 percent of kids who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
Making sure kids learn to read, and learn early, is vital. We're not talking about understanding the differences between the literary and cinematic versions of "The Hunger Games," here. We're talking about a basic life skill. It doesn't matter whether the words are on paper, on a screen, on a sign. Words are everywhere, and we are crippling our kids if we don't make sure they can read them.
The other day, I drove past a bookstore I remember quite well from my childhood. I thought it was such a fascinating place. It is, apparently, now closed, though there seem to be books, still, behind the locked doors. In fact, it's not easy to find a general, brick-and-mortar bookstore these days. From what I understand, registration for public library cards is down, too. A friend of mine, who is an elementary school teacher, spends a good deal of money out of her own pocket in order to buy books students have requested for the school's library, because other sources of funding are not always available.
Groups like the Literacy Volunteers are always looking for help in their effort to improve literacy among adults. School systems are still searching for answers, though they may have to stop pining for the days when they did get help from the parents and instead look for more creative ways to tackle the problem in the classroom. And yes, I am well aware that these days "in loco parentis" is abused to a degree that encompasses far more than reading.
Libraries need volunteers and funding, as well as a community-wide effort to simply boost interest.
But most importantly, families must again instill in their children the importance of reading and writing.
If kids don't know how to get lost in a good book, they'll just be lost.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org