When Dana Gioia was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush, he found that the state of reading in America was in decline. Seven years later, there hasn’t been much improvement, he laments.
Gioia, a highly-regarded Catholic poet and who now teaches at the University of Southern California, says people are reading less and reading less well. That situation imperils not only their future career prospects but deprives young people of an inner life, as well.
Under Gioia’s chairmanship, the NEA issued two reports: Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read. He recently spoke to Aleteia correspondent John Burger about the importance of reading, especially among the young.
What can you say about reading in America today, in general?
Gioia: Reading at Risk caused a kind of an international flurry of interest, and then about a year later we did a report called To Read or Not to Read, in which we took every federally funded national study on reading and looked at them from every possible angle — I think it was 40 studies — to see basically what we could generalize from these things. Comparing data is always a problem because nothing ever agrees. But in this case, it was really scary because at least 40 studies were done on everything from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to national education to the Bureau of Prisons, [and they] basically told us the same thing. I wrote a summary for Congress and the Senate, and we were able to summarize it in three sentences: 1) Every group of Americans is reading less. 2) Consequently, they read less well. 3) Reading less well has measurable negative consequences for education, employment, income, civil involvement and personal success.
That’s the macro view: that our society is losing an extremely important collective skill, which is high-level reading. If you look at the data carefully, the younger you are, the more severe the decline, so that the older you are the better you read, the more you read, etc.
And if you want to go one step further, people who are most affected are boys. Boys read less and read less well. There is a kind of stupid rationalization that you see in society. You have to understand that how much we read about this is determined by the publicity departments of electronics companies, video game companies, things like this. People want us to believe that reading is a kind of old-style skill that has been superseded by all these wonderful electronic things and that reading on the internet is every bit as good as reading a book. I don’t disagree, if what people were doing on the internet is reading traditional texts, but they really aren’t. They’re looking at films and videos, and when they do read, it is usually a photo caption. When people read on the internet, they tend to read no more than 17 words at a time.
Should we be concerned? Why does this matter?
Gioia: If you could know only one thing about a 17- or 18-year old to predict his or her future success, you’d probably want to know whether they voluntarily read. If the answer is yes, you can be reasonably sure they will do better in school, they’ll do better in the job market, they’ll become more integrated with their community, and they will have higher odds of successful personal outcomes. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is massively documented in statistical and behavioral studies that if you read, you’re more likely to volunteer in charity work; you’re more likely to vote; you’re more likely to exercise; you’re more likely to play sports; you’re more likely to go out to all sorts of civic events, from sports events to cultural events.
When I saw that — it doesn’t make intuitive sense that if you read more you’re going to exercise more, that if you’re going to read more you’re going to do more charity work, more volunteer work — I said I don’t believe it. I think it’s a function of education; I think it’s a function of income. If you read more, you have a better job, you make more money, you do more volunteer work, more charity work. I was wrong; you could take the poorest people in the U.S. who do literary reading and you contrast them to the richest — these are quintiles — and you will find that the poorest people do twice the level that the rich people do. On an average basis, it’s four times the level, if you compare all quintiles. Same thing with exercise; same thing with voting.
So what’s going on? It’s not income. I think what’s going on is something that as Catholics we understand, that what reading does is four things:
First, what you’re doing reading a book or magazine is something where you’ve got paragraphs, pages of prose; you’re training your ability to focus attention. … If you want to be an engineer, a scientist, a doctor, or a lawyer, or if you want to drive a truck — anything, really — it requires a mental capacity for sustained — and I would say linear — attention, focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking, which is what the internet encourages us to do.
Secondly, when you’re reading a book, [your] mind has to take all those abstract words and provide images. Reading develops your imagination and your memory because you’re pulling these things from memory and imagination.
Thirdly, if you’re reading, what you’re mostly reading are stories; even in a newspaper, it’s a story, and you tend to see other people’s lives. It’s a sustained exercise of meditating on other people’s lives. And from a novel, it’s really from the inside — it develops empathy and understanding that other people have lives as complex as you, both inner and outer lives as complex as yours. And this proves absolutely crucial in developing a sense of who you are. I don’t think that the [person] who gunned down school children in Connecticut had a sense of other people’s lives from the inside. They’re imprisoned within themselves, with almost no sense of what the rest of reality is like.
The third thing leads to the fourth: as you begin to understand other people’s lives, inner and outer, that have all of this complexity — psychological, sociological, gender, race, class, age, faith — you tend to develop a sense of “Well, so do I.” You start to compare your life with theirs, and what you develop is an inner life of your own. As Catholics, we understand the extraordinary importance of this: that our inner life is our access to our spirit. If you are basically watching things on a screen, everything is outside of you; everything is surface. And I think that one of the things that’s going on right now is we have a generation that has not had their inner lives, their inner realities, fed to the degree that they should have them nourished.
So the answer really is that reading is fundamental to developing a full personal and public life in people. As you take it away, it is substituted by passive electronic entertainment, most of which is commercial entertainment. It’s people selling you things, trying to get you to buy the next new thing — a movie, a video game, clothes, etc.
This could explain a lot — this need for an inner life not being nourished. You sometimes sense an emptiness in young people today; perhaps it’s a factor in why there are more teen suicides or people acting out like the Newtown shooter, to cite some extreme examples, or inattentiveness at Mass, to cite a more common example.
Gioia: In the last three years, I’ve taught at University of Southern California. These are superb students — USC is now harder to get into than Berkeley — but what I‘m seeing are kids who dwell almost entirely in the electronic now. There was a study that USC did a few months ago showing that the average American — and the number is slightly higher for teens — now watches 14 hours a day of screens. What I’ve noticed in the young is something that is deeply troubling: most of what they watch is really crap (and they know it’s crap; they’re not dumb). They end up cultivating a kind of cynicism and skepticism to the very media which has addicted them. So we’ve got a generation which is kind of ironic, skeptical, sarcastic, and detached; you have this highly cultivated class of kids sitting there, making comments, and I think there’s a kind of terrible erosion of civic consciousness — of community consciousness — to that. They’re detached rather than being part of it, because the thing about being part of it is that you start to fix it.
Any father who wants his children to succeed will probably need to spend personal time in getting them to read. The educational system does a very good job in teaching students how to read but it does a terrible job in giving them the incentive to continue reading. Reading skills peak at about the age of 11, and by 13 — which is the age when kids begin to make a little distance from their parents and begin to submerge themselves in internet, video games, TV, etc. — growth in reading ability begins to stop.
How can parents get their children to read?
Gioia: Parents need to remember they are parents. I have two sons who were in good schools, neither of whom in their teenage years read much. In fact, they claimed they did not enjoy reading. There were many other things — video games, Facebook, TV, etc. — that they would rather do instead. I simply created time when they were not allowed to do any of the electronic diversions, and they had to either sit there in silence or they could read. They complained, they moaned, they groaned. Six months later, they were eager and happy readers. Kids need to get over the hump of developing those mental muscles that reading requires. Once they do, reading becomes very fulfilling to them. Parents have to be strong enough to create quiet time in which kids can read and to enforce that. I guarantee you, if the kids have good books, the books do the rest. Let them read entertaining things; let them read science fiction or adventure. Find something that they like, and you can then trust them to pursue their interests.
How can parents get started, particularly if they haven’t been in the habit of reading to their children, or if their older children are not in the habit of picking up a good book?
Gioia: The main reason adults claim they have become readers was that their parents read to them. The second reason is that they saw their parents read. So if the parent says, “Get the hell out of here; I’m reading a book,” that’s better than nothing.
So many successful behaviors are family behaviors — so many unsuccessful ones, too. Parents who set a good example for their kids have a pretty good long-term impact on them. So what parents should do when they’re younger is read to them so they get used to hearing words rather than just watching television. And then as the kids get old enough that they don’t want to be read to any more, have them read. Take the iPad away; turn the TV off; turn the computer off. Be confident that as a parent you know some things better than the kids do, no matter what the kids tell you.
Are there any good reading lists available?
Gioia: There are many lists. I think one could do far worse than giving the kids some classic books. When I was young, I used to read Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan of the Apes,A Princess of Mars. It’s only when I went back to them as an adult that I realized what a huge vocabulary Burroughs had. Burroughs, writing in 1912 for average kids, had a vocabulary you wouldn’t use in college now. That’s how bad reading skills have gotten. My students at USC do not have a working vocabulary that college students had 30 years ago. Why? Because they don’t need it. They only need the vocabulary that’s on television and the internet.
You learn from history that civilizations sometimes lose capacities. It took a thousand years to catch up to Roman engineering. Romans understood things that got lost. I worry that reading, which is a cumulative learned skill that makes our brain do something that’s not quite natural for the brain but which our brain is fully capable of doing, is a capacity — indeed, a talent — we are losing collectively in our society.