By Emily Stimpson
To read or not to read? That is the question.
At least, that's the question the National Endowment for the Arts chose as the title of its newest study on America's reading habits: "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence."
Unfortunately, as the November 2007 study chronicles, for most Americans, it's really not much of a question at all. Increasingly and overwhelmingly, we are choosing not to read. More specifically, we are choosing not to read books for pleasure.
Drawing on data collected by the federal government, "To Read or Not to Read" paints a grim picture of America's reading habits. For the past 25 years, the number of hours we spend reading for pleasure, the number of books we buy and the number of books we read have steadily declined. So has our ability to comprehend what we're reading. Literacy scores for teenagers and adults -- including college graduates -- have dropped, with reading and writing scores down across the board.
As grim as that picture is, its consequences are even grimmer. In today's world, a culture's social, economic and political health largely depend on the literacy of its citizens.
The NEA study links reading to both civic involvement and the arts -- readers are three times more likely to volunteer in their communities and churches, as well as attend plays, concerts and museums. The study also draws the connection between academic achievement and economic advancement -- most employers rank advanced literacy skills as "very important," and the modern economy depends on a literate workforce to compete in the global market.
Then there's politics.
As NEA Chairman Dana Gioia told Our Sunday Visitor, "Individual freedom, democracy and universal literacy are interrelated phenomena. If we want to preserve a society which is free and egalitarian, there is no way to do this that does not require universal literacy."
The health of a culture may hinge on its people's ability and desire to read, but what about the Church? What do literacy and a love for books have to do with teaching and living the faith?
"It's essential," said Eric Westby, director of the Office of Family Catechesis for the Diocese of Phoenix. "God made himself accessible to us through human words in Scripture. We encounter Christ through the Word of God. We come to know him better through Church documents, the writings of the saints and the Fathers, even through fiction. Reading helps us be more like Christ and live like Christ."
Reading, however, gives Christians more than mere knowledge of God. It teaches us about the world, about sin and about ourselves. It opens up worlds to us that lie beyond the realm of our own experience, and teaches our minds to see connections between seemingly unrelated realities.
"Reading helps us understand the drama of life," Westby summed up.
And it's not just what we read that changes our vision and nourishes our souls. According to Gioia, it's also simply that we read.
"Reading involves silent, focused attention on a specific subject," he explained. "Reading is a sort of sustained meditation, which awakens our inner life since we are required to use both our memory and imagination to understand the text."
Without the knowledge of the faith we receive through reading, and without the intellectual and spiritual strength that comes from the act of reading, author and professor of English at Providence College Anthony Esolen believes that Christians can neither live nor answer for the faith.
"We come to detest complexity and grow incapable of understanding the subtleties of faith," he explained. "The creed is reduced to an outburst of emotive affirmation, and we become easy prey to the promoters of sex and heresy because we don't have the intellectual muscles to resist."
Culture, economics, democracy, faith -- an awful lot depends on reading, which begs the question: Why are people reading less?
There are, of course, lots of answers to that question. Much of the blame, Westby believes, lies with the frenetic busyness of our culture, not to mention the breakdown of traditional family life and our increasing expectation of and desire for entertainment that does not engage us, that doesn't ask anything of us. But, of course, books do.
Esolen also noted the reluctance of educators to include great books in classroom curriculums (or even acknowledge their existence for that matter).
"Give a 9-year-old swill to read, and by the time he's 15, he's done with it," Esolen said. "Swill gets boring, and much of what's out there today is swill."
But the simplest answer to why people are reading less may be this: We're not.
In the July 2008 issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" author Nicholas Carr asserts that when it comes to the literal act of reading, our eyes looking at words on a page -- or more accurately, words on a screen -- Americans may be reading more than ever before. And between e-mails, blogs and checking the sports scores on ESPN.com, not to mention text messages, he may be right.
The NEA study doesn't, in fact, take that kind of reading into account. Nor do standardized tests in U.S. schools measure students' online reading skills -- skills which many educators insist are different than those used for reading books and magazines and increasingly important for success in the digital age.
The reason for their importance, said Rand Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University, is that the Internet images our "nonlinear world of knowledge."
"The world doesn't go in a line," he explained. "It's not organized into chapters. If we use tools in teaching that image the way the world is, once students leave school they'll be able to understand the world better and transact better in it."
Spiro sees further benefits in the Internet's promotion of "flexible knowledge and more efficient, multi-perspectival learning."
In other words, opposing viewpoints can more quickly and readily be found on the Internet, quickly giving readers multiple sides of an issue. Likewise, the hyperlinks that pepper every online article, web page and blog site quickly propel readers to additional sources of information, which can lead to deeper understanding and insight.
That, at least, is the theory. But is it the reality?
Studies by the University of London show that while the Internet may encourage wider or more frequent reading, it does not encourage deeper reading. Their studies show that most of us rarely read more than two pages of text on the Internet before we follow one of the ubiquitous hyperlinks to wherever it may lead. Even more rarely do we return to the page we left behind.
Confessing his own guilt of such "bouncing," Carr, in The Atlantic article, wrote: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski."
If we're only skimming online and never deep-sea diving, Spiro says that's our problem, not the Internet's. We're not using it as it should be used. But as Carr pointed out, those with a commercial stake in the Internet want us to bounce from page to page.
"The faster we surf across the Web, the more links we click and the more pages we view, the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements," he explained.
The business of the Internet is built on skimming and skipping. It delivers instant answers, instant knowledge, and it surrounds that knowledge with blinking, flashing, dancing figures.
Which brings us back to the problems outlined in "To Read or Not to Read" -- the decline in book reading and reading comprehension. The two may not be unrelated to the growth of the Internet.
Maryann Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, argued in the same Atlantic article that the type of reading most people do online weakens their ability to think deeply, to make connections and to interpret text while reading.
More starkly put, when we read online, we become less literate, not more.
We also may come to see learning and the pursuit of knowledge differently.
"We've been conditioned in the last 10 years to looking for short answers and finding them as quickly as possible on the Internet," Westby asserted. "Reading online makes reading all about getting information, not thinking critically or pursuing truth. The idea of taking the time to read something seems like too much of a challenge."
Hence the NEA's findings. We may be reading more, but we're not reading more books, and we're not reaping the rewards of reading books.
In the larger culture, newspapers and magazines have attempted to accommodate for America's new reading habits by shortening the length of stories, adding sidebars, pull quotes, anything to grab people's attention and deliver information more quickly. Television joined the game as well, with news tickers and information bubbles almost permanently affixed to the bottom of screens.
In order to teach the faith, Westby says the Church also has to employ similar tactics.
"When doing catechesis, especially with teenagers, you have to change the flow of the meeting every 7 to 12 minutes," he explained. "That doesn't leave us with much time to get our message across."
Catechists are also learning to use tools created by the Internet -- blog sites, websites and podcasts -- to compensate for people's lack of desire or ability to learn about the faith through books.
But if Carr and company are correct, while those tools may help get some information across, they also exacerbate the problem. They feed our increasing inability to immerse ourselves in a good book and learn from it.
Westby acknowledges that paradox, but nonetheless believes that using the Internet's offspring can still be helpful for teaching the faith -- up to a point.
"There is so much in the Christian life that depends on deep reading," he said. "But we need to use all the resources at our disposal to lead people to more resources, to get them to go deeper, to get them to realize that there's always more."
And discovering that there is more is what Westby believes is the ultimate answer to America's reading problem. Through catechesis, especially catechesis that employs story -- Scripture, the witness of the saints personal testimonies -- he believes the Church can awaken in people the desire for truth that leads to deeper reading and deep thought.
"People are attracted to a good story," he said. "Catechesis can be a bridge that links people to story, to drama. When they discern the drama of life, they can't help but want more than fast answers."
Esolen added that even seemingly small acts of encouragement from parishes and dioceses, such as returning "David Copperfield" to Catholic classroom curriculums and starting up small parish book clubs, could do wonders.
"You don't have to get people reading a ton of books," he said. "A couple really good ones will do. Anyone who has read Dante and read him well will have proof against half the stupidities of our age."
As far as Gioia is concerned, the Church has a vested interest in doing just that.
"If America produces a generation of young adults who can't or don't read, that will have serious spiritual and communal consequences, both in the lives of individuals and the lives of the broader Church," he said.
But, as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. In the end, it's up to individual Catholics to, as Esolen put it: "Pick up a book, go outside, sit down, thumb its pages and listen to what it has to say. Then go inside and use the Internet to find out how the Cardinals are doing."
Some books inform. Others transform -- changing readers and changing worlds. Here are just a few of those books, books that transformed the thoughts and lives of the staff of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and some of our friends. If you haven't had the pleasure of reading them, perhaps it's time to pay a visit to your local Catholic bookstore. Needless to say, they come with our highest recommendation.
"Mere Christianity" by C. S. Lewis
"When I was a young adult flirting with agnosticism and feeling like I had more questions than anyone had answers, I was given a copy of 'Mere Christianity.' In clear and well-written prose, utilizing classic Christian apologetics in a way that felt surprisingly contemporary, Lewis reintroduced me to my faith."
Greg Erlandson, president, Our Sunday Visitor
"The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins"
"Hopkins, a Victorian Jesuit, wrote verse of unparalleled intensity and beauty in a novel, not to say revolutionary, form. His poems fuse grandeur of spiritual vision with extraordinary literary art. They're a precious treasure of our Catholic tradition."
Russell Shaw, OSV contributing editor
"The Wisdom of the Desert" by Thomas Merton
"A beautiful, eloquent and astute book that I read in my mid-30s that pointed out in how many ways I needed to change my life. Not that I've ever lived up to it."
Dana Gioia, poet and National Endowment for the Arts chairman
"The Poet and the Lunatic" by G.K. Chesterton
"This odd little collection of stories by the always-mystical Chesterton reminded me of what I'd forgotten in the years that I left both childhood and the Catholic Church behind -- the great drama, mystery and beauty lurking in the most ordinary of moments. It helped bring me back to reality and back to the Church."
Emily Stimpson, OSV contributing editor
"The Idiot" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"Dostoevsky taught me how to read comprehensively. There is always so much more going on in the book than the story itself."
Eugene Peterson, author of "Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading"
"As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner
"I read this as a teenager, at a stage when many young people feel isolated by their differences. Faulkner's multi-character point-of-view tale of, shall we say, unique people dealing with death helped me see that even though each of us is different, we are all connected by our need for redemption."
York Young, OSV periodical editorial development manager
"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
"I read an abridged version as a child and appreciated all the childish things, but it's a book that you can read again and again, and gain more and more from each time, especially as you learn a little history about the author -- the liberal educational views of her father, Bronson Alcott, and the interesting friends and neighbors -- Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Fuller."
Cathy Dee, OSV website administrator
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
"Nearly 20 years after reading it for the first time, I still cherish Harper Lee's tale of life in the racially segregated Depression-era South. The novel opened my eyes to the horrors of racial injustice, to be sure, but it also taught me that human decency, embodied in the character of gentleman lawyer Atticus Finch, survives even in the most hopeless of situations."
Sarah Hayes, OSV presentation editor
"The Brothers' Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"I first read this novel in my later teens, when its probing of the questions of faith and God's existence, how to arrive at truth and the fundamentals surrounding family loyalty, love and forgiveness deeply impressed and intoxicated me. I still remember some of the scenes he created as if I was there myself."
John Norton, OSV editor
Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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