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.
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.