Whether it is with the stroke of a key, or the turn of a page, or plugging in a headset: read. Books matter. They alter lives. They open our hearts and minds and touch us in immeasurable ways — creeping into our consciousness and befriending us, challenging us and changing us. Books, like information and freedom of expression, are the oxygen with which an individual and a society can breathe.

Let's welcome the arrival of National Readathon Day on Jan. 24, 2015, created by Penguin Random House to fund the National Book Foundation's efforts to promote literacy and reading. Having a special day to recognize the power of reading reminds us of the work we must do to make reading a basic right, not just a privilege.


Far too many Americans don't have the time nor inclination to read a book. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year — in any format. (Women were more likely to have read a book in the past year than men.)

Thankfully, reading is getting more accessible globally. The good news is that literacy rates for adults and children around the world continue to rise, with young women making the strongest gains according to UNESCO. Yet despite progress, 781 million adults spread throughout many countries still cannot read or write. In more than a dozen countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than half of all adults had basic literacy skills in 2012.

Too many girls remain out of school and away from books. Too many adults do not have access to books nor the ability to read them. The National Readathon Day will encourage individuals and reading "teams" to read for four hours straight and to enlist sponsors and donors to pledge money and to support literacy causes. (Use the hashtag #TimetoRead and register on FirstGiving.)

Those who follow book trends know that the book publishing landscape has its share of challenges, bringing with it both positive benefits and barriers. Technology has enabled more people to access book content through audio books, e-readers, cell phones, digital devices, print-on-demand, larger print, self-publishing, instant translation and a host of other reading boosters. But there are still many books that need to be translated and made available in closed societies.

A common question is: Can bookstores survive? The book publishing industry and booksellers have been on a roller-coaster ride to adapt to changes. The rise of Amazon and other online book distribution sites coupled with economic pressures have forced chains like Borders to declare bankruptcy in 2011. Barnes & Noble is hanging on despite setbacks in the sale of its Nook e-reader. Independent bookstores are having a bit of a revival despite the closure of many of them over the years. According to the American Booksellers Association, independent bookstores in the U.S. have grown 19 percent, from 1,651 to 1,921 last year. But that is down from 4,000 in the 1990s.

Libraries have also struggled to keep up with all the digital changes. The hardest hit are public school libraries, which face financial belt-tightening at a time when we are encouraging reading. And despite all the e-reading, there is evidence to suggest that bookshelves still draw readers to books. The Dewey Decimal System may be old, but the readers are new.

In the end, for many of us, reading will never get old. A book lives within us forever. They connect us to our inner selves and to a wider community of readers. As author James Baldwin once said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

Sonenshine teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. An avid reader, you can request her current booklist.