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story.lead_photo.caption Panel: From left, SouthArk Library Director Philip Shackelford, Calhoun County Public Library Director Allie Stevens, Union County Public Library System Executive Director Michael O’Connell, SouthArk Advising Coach Vince Dawson, SouthArk Director of Enrollment Services Dean Inman and SouthArk Librarian Lauri Wilson discuss their interest in reading, how they got into reading and why they enjoy reading as part of a panel at the South Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday. Madeleine Leroux/News-Times

One of the ideas about books and reading that tends to unite readers is that it can be a form of escape.

This idea was echoed by panelists at the South Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, which was organized by South Arkansas Community College, the Union County Public Library and the Calhoun County Public Library.

Allie Stevens, director of the Calhoun County Public Library, said she spent her high school career reading classic books because she thought it made her look smart. However, now she’s turned more to the fiction genre.

“Reading is valuable for more reasons than we have time to discuss today, but I really use it as an escape,” Stevens said. “Real life can get kind of monotonous, it’s just the same some days over and over. I like reading things that are different from my own personal experience.”

Lauri Wilson, librarian at SouthArk Library, said she got her first Barton Library Card when she was 5 and has been reading ever since. When she got her first library job, her mom worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep it because she would be reading all the time. Wilson said she actually reads less now.

“I’ll start usually half a dozen books before I find something that I like,” Wilson said. “Why do you consider reading valuable? It can take you places you’ve never been before. It’s a hobby. It gives you something to fall back on if you’re lonely or sick or just without resources you can always have reading there. You can always have something to turn to like a favorite book.”

Vince Dawson, an advising coach with SouthArk, said he grew up as the youngest of seven kids without TV or much entertainment. When he was young, his dad took him to the one-room schoolhouse in town, which had been abandoned for several years. This helped spark his interest in education, which has influenced his interest in documentary and non-fiction writing.

“I didn’t really have any playmates because my brothers and sisters were so much older,” Dawson said. “So my mom brought home this Bible story book that had lots of colorful pictures in it. She would make me read a story every day. I wouldn’t say it was something I had fun doing at the time, but looking back it’s a great memory. That was kind of my escape, I could read about things and pretend I was in a place I never was.”

Michael O’Connell, executive director of the Union County Public Library System, said his enjoyment of books comes from the things he can learn from them. For instance, reading “Moby Dick” he learned about the 19th-century whaling industry. He doesn’t remember learning how to read, but said the family would talk about him reading from a very young age.

“According to family legend, my sister was reading iRobot,” O’Connell said. “I came along and read the title and she said ‘you can’t read that.’ So I opened up the book and I was sight reading it to her. I was three.”

Stevens said her love for reading came, in part, from being taught to read by her grandfather. He would take her to the bookstore and would never question what she picked up or told her that it wasn’t appropriate for her.

“My grandfather was dyslexic,” Stevens said. “When my brother and I came along, he was very involved in our education and very admit about learning to read. He was the most patient person I’ve ever known. He would read us the same book over and over until we had the whole thing memorize. That’s how we learned to read.”

Dean Inman, Director of Enrollment Services at SouthArk, said he would stay up half the night when he was growing up just reading and that there were times when he would be up reading until he heard his mom say it was time to get up.

“I’m thoroughly convinced that it was my parents saying ‘the TV goes off at 8 o’clock, but you can read as late as you want’ was part of it,” Inman said. “When I was in college, I had a job in the library as a history tutor. I think in the three years I was a tutor, I helped two people. They put me on the second floor, which was right next to the Top Ten Books display. I was probably the best read college student at my alma mater. I need something to shut my brain down and the best thing I’ve found is to escape into another world.”

Michael Shine may be reached at 870-862-6611 or Follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook @MichaelAZShine for updates on Union County school news.

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