NEW YORK – Americans aren't exactly known for being bookish.
We are stereotyped as watching too much TV, playing too many video games and being glued to our computer screens more than to the pages of a good read.
But big-selling books like the latest Harry Potter (search) and Hillary Clinton's Living History (search) — not to mention the recent revival of Oprah Winfrey's book club (search) — could help kick-start an upsurge in reading.
"I think that the perception is that we're not [reading enough]," said Gary Hoppenstand, professor of American thought and literature at Michigan State University. "But … more books are being written and published and read today [than at any other time] in the history of the country."
Still, the publishing biz is in the doldrums: The Association of American Publishers says sales of hardcovers in particular were down more than 20 percent this year. But with titles like Potter, Living History and Winfrey's pick, John Steinbeck's East of Eden (search), flying off shelves, the industry is hoping the book-buying frenzy will prove contagious.
"It's unusual that these three things happened right after one another," said Jenie Carlen, manager of public relations for Borders. "We're hoping the excitement and anticipation will compel people to continue to read and be happy about continuing reading."
Borders Group Inc. estimates that between 30 and 60 percent of people who walk through the doors of their stores buy a book. So if big names like J.K. Rowling (search) can get consumers through the door, chances are the cash registers will continue to ring.
"The feeling is once they get there, they find lots of things that interest them," said Charlotte Abbott, book news editor for Publisher's Weekly.
Harry Potter readers, for example, have been buying more copies of previous Rowling books. Oprah Book Club members might not just buy her latest recommendation, but previous ones as well. And Living History readers may check out other biographies such as Rudy Giuliani's Leadership (search).
Most years, Christmas is the major sales time for publishers, but with Potter's record-breaking numbers — 5 million copies sold by the end of the first day — the industry feels hopeful about future sales.
"It's the same phenomenon you find at the theater … people may go for blockbuster films but if it's sold out, they may go to another movie," said Hoppenstand. "Blockbusters do not hurt. Blockbusters only help — they help everyone."
"If there is one book in a year on this level, I think publishers would be happy," said Abbott.
Books such as The Da Vinci Code (search) by little-known author Dan Brown have also been so wildly popular that bookstores have been surrounding it with titles on similar topics, hoping to inspire readers to buy those, too.
But of course, it doesn't hurt to have big names, like Oprah, Rowling and Clinton, drawing people to books.
"[They] could refocus people back to the simple joy of reading," Carlen said.
Hoppenstand pointed out Americans read more than they get credit for, but the electronic media culture is so prevalent that "it really gets the attention in terms of the perception of what people are engaging in."
Maribeth Schmitt, a professor of literacy and language education at Purdue University and president of the Reading Recovery Council of North America (search), said one way surefire way to keep Americans reading is to turn kids on to books by the first grade.
"They just develop this, 'I can't wait to get to the next book' mentality," she said.
During the first three years of school, especially, classrooms should be jam packed with all sorts of books, Schmitt added, which will help turn kids into book-loving adults in the long-run.
"If every classroom like that continues, all the way up, then I think you're going to have adults who can't wait for the next book or the next page or the next chapter. I think that foundation has to be built early."