People today don’t read. If you recommend a book, they will ignore you. If you write them a letter or long email, they will skim it poorly or ignore it. If you try to have an extended conversation with them, they will quickly grow bored and check their phones—and look at pictures, not read. I know the length of this post has probably scared off 90% of potential readers.
Even if this is the norm now, it’s a sad thing for society and people themselves. The lack of literacy prevents us from coping with the increasing complexity of our world. Problems in world or culture are increasingly answered with inadequate solutions that betray a mass ignorance even among the so-called “educated.”
And, as another writer has mentioned, adult males are the worst about reading. It should come as no surprise, then, that women easily outnumber men in college and graduate school. While they study and acquire higher-level skills, so many of the men are falling behind.
It would take a great number of posts to consider why men along with most people in general have dropped reading. For now though, we need a plan. We all know we need to read more, but we don’t know where to start.
If becoming better readers is our goal, the best approach would be treating reading as exercise and literacy as fitness. Although a few people may want to optimize their bodies for competitive reasons, most people simply want to be fit and healthy. Similarly, a relatively small amount of people want to actually “read like professors,” but the majority would like to read like intelligent adults.
Having a workout mentality means that instead of reading what’s popular or particularly difficult, one should read a variety of texts at a level that will gradually become more rigorous over time. No one trains for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on his first day of training; he trains over time, so many times a week, increasing the distance of his runs incrementally. Yes, we can hopefully reach a point where we can read St. Thomas’s Summa someday—a worthy item for the bucket list—but not right away.
So what should we be reading then? If we’re thinking of reading as a workout, we should be looking at how and why we’re reading more than what we’re reading. It’s best to develop a routine that touches on all kinds of texts that makes us generally fit: light reading, heavy reading, long reading, short reading, literary reading, argumentative reading, etc.
In order to achieve this well-roundedness in literacy, readers should include these genres that help develop all the mental groups on the mind.
– Holy Scripture. Reading the Bible is the first step in becoming an intelligent reader and absolutely vital for any literate Christian. All people should read scripture everyday. Of course, reading the Bible cover to cover can be daunting. That’s why most people will read through the Bible one book at a time, usually reading the narrative books in order and the other books at different times. If one’s reading these books for the first time, it would probably be best to read each one straight through, like any other book; but if one is rereading, reading the daily Mass readings will help reinforce one’s knowledge and scripture studies at a parish will help a person go deeper into the text.
– Current Events. This includes news reports, commentary, editorials, reviews, and other content found in print and online periodicals. With the internet at our fingertips and so many choices of free content (my personal favorites, Catholic conservative that I am, are National Review and Crisis Magazine), there is no excuse not to be informed about the world.
– Popular Nonfiction. Once you start reading the news and see so many ideas cited and discussed, you eventually will want to read nonfiction books on various topics like history, politics, economics, philosophy, science, or religion. Unlike fiction, which is currently in a rut, this is probably where the best writers of today do their work and where the classics of our time will come from.
– Fiction. While most contemporary fiction is not worth reading, some novels will hold their own and have substance (usually book reviewers can help with sifting). Older fiction, written before 1960, that has earned the label “classic” will nearly always have something to offer. Some intellectual boors may deride fiction as “fake” and “useless,” but they’re wrong; good fiction strengthens one’s ability to analyze, empathize, and use language in new ways. Plus, it’s often more fun and inspiring, which all readers need from time to time.
– The Core Texts. Otherwise known as a the Western literary canon, the core texts are the revered tomes that represent the best of Western civilization. They are also some of the most challenging works to read. Ironically, many of these books are things we were assigned in school as kids and muddled through incoherently if we read it at all. After one has kept up a routine with the other genres for some time (at least a few months), he should think about taking on one of these books—again, probably not the Summa, which is on the list, but maybe one of the epics or ancient histories.
I’ve simplified these categories, but the idea should be clear. The goal is not to read really hard books, but to just read regularly. Improvement will come with practice. And the mental fitness that comes through working out our mind with reading will not only make us better employees equipped with higher-level thinking skills, but better men capable of living life with greater intensity.