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Reading builds compassion, joy and love

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A recent study reported in The New York Times (3 August) determined that people who read books live an average of almost two years longer.

Indeed, the lives of readers are likely to be not only longer but deeper. Reading can help develop empathy and build the capacity for more compassion, joy and love.

More than a decade ago, the US National Endowment for the Arts issued a report called Reading at Risk (2004), concluding that the percentage of adult Americans reading literature had dropped dramatically. But a nearly contemporaneous Gallup survey in 2005 found that almost half of all Americans were reading a book at the time, an increase over the 1990 rate and more than double the 1957 rate.

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More recently, a Pew Research Centre report in 2015 found that 80 per cent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 had read a book in the past year and even showed that people in that age range were more likely than those over 30 to be book readers.

The Pew data also show a marked increase in the use of e-readers, smartphones and tablets.

As encouraging as some of that data may be, there also are causes for concern.

Literacy survey data collected in 2012 and 2014, the most recent available, show that 17 per cent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 65 read at or below the lowest of four levels of literacy competency. Further, the share of those lacking reading skills is higher among the unemployed.

Struggles with literacy can also be generationally entrenched. The US Foundation for Child Development found that children whose mothers had not graduated from high school, when compared with those whose mothers had a bachelor’s degree, were less than one third as likely to be reading proficiently in eighth grade.

The correlations between socioeconomic status and reading ability are complicated. But whatever is ultimately at the bottom of the link such statistics serve as a reminder that reading must not be treated as a luxury but as a basic and necessary human need.

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The reading process starts within the family, ideally with parents reading to their children. Schools, libraries and church communities should help prepare parents and provide them books to read with their children as a demonstration that they are important and loved.

Commitment to reading in schools should also be strengthened, to inculcate proficiency – and a love of the worlds and insights books open to readers.

Both the traditional Great Books and more recent works are important to help foster empathy and curiosity about the lives of others.

Reading skills are necessary for any participation in the modern economy but, even more important, reading – especially of fiction – inspires readers, helping them grow in empathy, civility, spirituality and political responsibility.

Lack of interest in reading is a social ill, leaving people less able to enter employment or rescue their citizens from injustice.

Encouraging a love for reading is likely not only to improve the economic quality of life but also to deepen and enrich life shared together in society.

This is an edited version of an editorial which appeared in the 2 September edition of the Jesuit Magazine America

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