How Reading Promotes Empathy and Drives Innovation
A survey by The Jenkins Group, an independent publishing services firm, has shown that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school.
Check out the stats:
33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42% of college graduates never read another book after college.
80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57% of new books are not read to completion.
While these statistics are obviously troubling, I don’t think any of us can honestly say we’re that surprised.
But what I’m intrigued by is not the people who neglect to read books, but rather, the ones who continue to do so.
I’ve noticed a unique trend among my friends who’ve thrived in their 20’s and 30’s. These special people have continued to seek out challenging books and ideas, allowing their beliefs and opinions to grow and evolve. They’ve stretched their worldviews by traveling beyond the borders of their hometowns, many of them abroad for substantial periods of time. They took risks, flourished in foreign places, taken jobs outside of their original field of study, and shared late night meals with people different than them.
For the most part, these people can be described in four unique ways: They are Readers, Travelers, Empathizers, and Innovators.
Raymond Mar, a professor at York University, noticed a link between reading and empathy. In a study of children, Mar found that the more a child reads, the likelier he or she is to be able to understand the emotions of others.
There is a stereotype in this country that the smarter you are, the more narcissistic you become. Maybe I choose great friends, but from my experience, I don’t find that to be entirely true. Do I know people who are insanely intelligent and whose egotism borders on megalomania? Of course. But for the most part, my peers who are readers, travelers, empathizers, and innovators have taken a fierce, others-centered stance. They want to make a difference, create change, and develop new ideas and products that contribute to society rather than just taking.
On the contrary, the people I know who haven’t picked up a book since high school or college do their professional work just as passionately, but with “me”-centered blinders, unable to see the possibilities outside of themselves.
Egotism is the enemy of empathy. You can track back an inflated view of self to nearly all of the most insidious events in human history. Yes, the success of American culture has bold foundations in individualism and personal responsibility. But it's been skillfully matched by a deep sense of charity, innovation, and wonder, much of which comes from the exploration of new ideas and beliefs.
I’m not too worried about the lack of reading for the sake of the book industry or ensuring profit for publishing houses.
I’m worried that the lack of reading is a canary in the mineshaft, warning us of a stifling narcissism in our midst.
If you are a reader, keep going and ensure the power of new ideas moves you to empathize and innovate. If you aren’t a reader, couple an interesting non-fiction piece with some young adult fiction and start plugging away. The world will thank you for it. And you'll probably become obsessed with Harry Potter.