My family has always had an assortment of books around the house for our children, and now for our grandchildren as well. Fond memories recur when I hear the grandchildren squeal with delight, as they explore the vast new worlds opening before them.
Inspired by his fourth-grade cousin, the rising first-grader reads anything within reach, especially “chapter books” and stories of saints. His parents patiently clarify the words that are not yet within his vocabulary.
His younger sister is exuberant when she realizes she can form letters into words, and words into sentences. Curious George is one of her bedtime favorites.
The vast new world, contained between the covers of a book, stimulates the imagination of these young readers as they are drawn more deeply to seek the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world in which they live.
Unfortunately, this joy of reading is absent from many homes today. Jean Twenge, an academic psychologist who studies the iPhone generation (iGens), recently told the Wall Street Journal that, “The percentage of high-school students who read books or other long-form content every day has dropped from 60 percent to 15 percent since the 1980s.” This is attributed to “short attention spans,” given today’s emphasis on social media and general internet surfing.
“The idea that you’re going to be patient and sit down to read a book for two hours and do nothing else is kind of mind-blowing to an iGener,” says Ms. Twenge.
Furthermore, the cancel culture continues to gut wholesome reading lists. It’s throwing out much of the best literature in pursuit of utopian perfection.
So how do we fix the problem? Recall that 1980 was over 40 years ago, and those who most appreciate good literature are now parents and even grandparents. Can they start reading again, for their own improvement and for their kids? How do they do it? Which books should they choose?
One resource that can help parents is the Cardinal Newman Society’s “Selected Reading List for Catholic K-12 Schools,” last updated in 2019. It’s intended to help educators identify good literature to assign students and to fill the shelves of Catholic school libraries. But I have shared it with many friends, who are reminded of their most beloved books from their childhood and resolve to share them with their kids and grandkids.
A few years ago, I was part of the Newman Society team that was charged with honoring outstanding Catholic high schools, based on their strong commitment to Catholic identity. One thing we noticed was that students in outstanding schools were required to read outstanding books. The best Catholic schools required students to stretch their minds in the summer and throughout the year by reading the best fiction and non-fiction.
This led the Newman Society’s Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey to consider more deeply the question, what are the qualities of great literature for a strong Catholic education? They wrote, citing several Vatican documents:
Catholic education seeks to “bring human wisdom into an encounter with divine wisdom,” cultivate “in students the intellectual, creative, and aesthetic faculties of the human person,” introduce a cultural heritage, and prepare them for the professional life and to take on responsibilities and duties of society and the Church. Literature and the arts are essential tools in Catholic education, helping impart “a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history” and an ordering of “the whole human culture to the news of salvation.” (Policy Standards on Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education, Cardinal Newman Society)
It is never too late to take up reading again, and it is never too early to begin reading to young children. Many mothers read to their babies in utero. Parents read Bible stories and fables from Bennett’s The Children’s Book of Virtues. Early titles at the K-4 level include fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and Aesop’s Fables. Titles such as Curious George (Rey), Madeline (Bemelmans) and Rikki Tikki Tavi (Kipling) are read over and over. Children also learn to read as they digest fables, tales, rhymes and stories, enlightening their imaginations and minds with new worlds that blend the past with their view of the present.
As they children into adolescence, they can broaden their reading by engaging in the lives of the saints and well-known titles such as Robin Hood (Pyle), Kon-Tiki (Heyerdahl), Little Women (Alcott) and Our Town (Wilder).
In high school, they delve into more complex non-fiction topics that relate to what they are studying in other classes, such as Franklin’s Autobiography, Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, King’s “I Have a Dream” and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Fiction such as Hugo’s Les Miserables, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels continue to broaden their view.
But what about adults? What if we have fallen out of the habit of reading? It is never too late to start. I have found that, just by sharing the Newman Society’s reading list, many adults are inspired to go back and read the classics. No one is too old to relive the adventures of Peter Pan, the intrigue of Shakespeare, or the humor and romance of Jane Austen.
Sharing books with family members, having books around the house when others visit, participating in parish book clubs and reading groups—these are just some of the ways we can promote a return to reading. And lest we forget, our Catholic heritage invites us daily to read the prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours. Salvation history is found in the Bible and the lives of the saints.
Now is a great time to restore reading to our homes. In doing so, we share joy and the fruits of imagination. And when we choose the best literature—the kind that helps us encounter the universal aspects of human experience, contemplate great ideas and truths, and ultimately grow closer to God—then we participate in the work of Catholic education, ordering of “the whole of human culture to the news of salvation.”
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