My observation was that it is easier to form a habit of not reading than not eating, but that both are detrimental to our well-being, one to our physical health, the other to our overall health as beings with souls. When we don't feed our minds and hearts with ideas from literature, we become weak, unthinking, and unfeeling toward the world, those around us, and even toward ourselves. The thoughts of other minds conveyed through words are essential to growth of the soul.
Alone in the desert for 40 days without food, Jesus was weak in the flesh when Satan came to entice Him. Jesus won that battle of words with words, for words are mighty weapons, especially those from God Himself: "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Himself the living Word, Jesus taught us to pray, "give us this day our daily bread." From his temptation in the wilderness, we grasp that words are as vital to us as bread itself.
After my addressing this reality last week, a friend sent a quote of Makoto Fujimura that expresses the outcome of this pervasive reading starvation diet. In his article, he refers to the National Endowment for the Arts famous study, "Reading at Risk," which I have cited several times over the years. Reading is in trouble, and like the proverbial frogs in pots of heating water, we are generally indifferent to the seriousness of this condition. Mako describes a further consequence to society at large that results from being a non-reading people:
"Associated with the decline in reading is a declining interest in activities like hiking, or going to baseball games; in essence, our habit of contemplation, of developing an interior life, has diminished, and that leads to disengagement from the world. Civic engagement, the study shows, is connected with reading habits. To see an artwork requires an extra dose of our desire to move outside of the self. What is alarming about what is happening is not just that artists are becoming extinct, but also that people are losing their ability to contemplate, to love deeply, to move toward beauty." (read full article here.)Reading, then, is not just about feeding ourselves, it is ultimately crucial to feeding the world around us. No one has to look far outside their own home to discover that the world is a needy place, starving physically, as well as spiritually. But we cannot give what we do not have ourselves. We cannot inspire the children in our homes to feed themselves with books if we do not feast on them ourselves, and none of us will have the strength to feed the world if we do not take in our daily bread of words and thoughts and ideas either.
A few years ago I challenged mothers to read through a book list I suggested in six months. A few took me up on that. Now I have mothers asking me to suggest not just books for their children's well-rounded living curriculum, but for their own educational regimen. Another way I have tried to spread the joy of reading is through book clubs in my home. Two nights ago, a young mother who was there thanked me for rescuing her reading life, which had slid off track in her considerably busy life as the mother of three under three and seven stepchildren. These developments are encouraging.
Obviously, our library has been an enormous effort to sustain a reading culture, but its local existence, and its online presence, can only reach a few. My challenge to you who come across my pleas here to feed and nourish yourselves and your children with excellent literature, is that you also consider encouraging those in your own circle of influence. Nothing less than the life-giving nutrition of the souls of this world is at stake.
For the joy of reading,