A deeply informed, literate people may be the only thing that stands in the gap between our nation and its ideals and the rising tide of ignorance, tribalism, and barbarism that appears to prevail today. Make no mistake—history teaches that progress is reversible. It has happened before, and it can happen again. Pulitzer Prize-winning, Wall Street Journal columnist, author, and speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently delivered a commencement address to The Catholic University of America’s graduating class of 2017 that captures exactly what’s at stake for us as a civilization. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum nor what your religious faith is, the following is worth your time. Her message is non-partisan and non-sectarian.
“Today is for celebration but starting tomorrow I humbly urge you to embark on a lifelong relationship with a faithful companion who will always help you and sometimes delight you — who will never desert you, who will make you smarter, and wiser, who will always be by your side and enlighten you all the days of your life. I am talking about: books.
You must not stop reading books. That’s all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books.
Now, you have certainly read a few to get here today and some of you have read a great many. But don’t stop, continue, even speed up. And if you have not read all that many books it’s okay, you can start now, your brain is still young and fresh, it can still absorb and hold and even commit to memory big important things.
And now I share the thing I will not forget that I saw during the campaign of 2016. I’d been seeing it for a while but last year it broke through to me in a new way.
I saw something, especially among the young men and women of politics and journalism — two professions from which excellent work is now more crucial to our country than ever. These young reporters and candidates for office are college graduates, they’re in their 20s and 30s and early 40s, they’re bright and ambitious and work hard. But it became clear in long conversation that they’ve received most of what they know about history and the meaning of things through screens.
They have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. They read the headline on Drudge or the Huffington Post and then jump to another site with more headlines. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is therefore superficial. Here is the problem: If those trying to make history have only a shallow sense of history, they will not be able to make anything good.
They came to maturity in the internet age and have filled much of their brain-space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned, that is, through sensation, and not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.
Reading books forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect, connect one historical moment with another. Reading books provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events, of the world — of life itself.
Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading histories of it presents you with a dilemma. The book forces you to imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events: It makes your brain do work.
But, oddly, it’s work the brain wants to do.
A movie or documentary is received passively: You sit back, see and hear. Books demand more and reward more. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands. In time that deepening comes to inform your own work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.
Not to put too fine a point, but your brain gets bigger, stronger. You become smarter and deeper. That happens with books.
In the past two years I talked to three young presidential candidates — people running for president of the United States, real grown-ups —who, it was clear to me by the end of our conversations, had, in their understanding of modern political history, both figuratively and literally seen the movie and not read the book. Two of them, I’ve come to know, can recite whole pages of dialogue from movies. (I will tell you parenthetically that it is interesting to me that the movies our politicians most love are “The Godfather” Parts I and II. In case you haven’t seen them, both movies are masterpieces and both are about gangsters involved in organized crime. Make of that what you will.
Another candidate for president by the way stated that his two favorite books were the bible and the Art of the Deal. I’ll let you guess who that was.
What I’m really saying is that almost everyone involved in politics or covering politics now…is getting dumber. They’re getting lost in a sea of dumb. They may drown in it. You must help them — they need you to help them, to be better than that, to set an example. They are involved in the making of history…and yet some are “historical illiterates”, which is David McCullough’s phrase. He of course is the great American historian of our time, and he would know. He’s written brilliant histories the past 40 years and recently was asked, “Apart from Harry Truman and John Adams, what other presidents have you interviewed?”
People in politics now are getting what they know through the internet, through Google searches and Wikipedia. These can give you a certain sense of things but are by nature quick, lifeless and shallow reads that link to other quick, dry and shallow reads that everyone else has also read. Who wrote them? Nobody quite knows. And what you see is often presented at a slant. They put forward as fact what are really the biases or limited knowledge of the writer. It all becomes a big lying loop. Or at least a big, un-nourishing, inadequate one.
And they leave out this fact: history is human. History is not dry dates and data, and it is not gossip or cheap stuff, it is human beings acting — sometimes heroically, sometimes inadequately or wickedly — in real time.
So: I am become an evangelist for reading books, especially history and poetry but novels too, fiction or non-fiction, whatever you’re drawn to. But try to be open to a lot — let life summon you through books, be open to its summoning.
I know this:
If you cannot read deeply you will not be able to think deeply.
If you cannot think deeply you will not be able to lead well.
And all of you deep down, in whatever areas and whatever ways, hope to lead.
So: Unplug and read every day. You stop at least three times a day to eat Stop at least once a day to read. You can also, I’m here to tell you, read while you are eating.
Here are some things you will get from it.
Information is more likely to be received and retained by the relaxed mind. Reading is by its nature relaxing. You’re not furiously scrolling down, you’re not hitting refresh, you’re not fighting off pop-ups, not surfing in search of likes, retweets, elusive approbation. It’s just you and your book, which unfolds before you, at your speed. It’s tactile. Hold the book in your hand, underline it, write notes on the margins, interact to the point even of defacement, it’s okay. Live with them for a while. Carry the paperback in your pocket.
You must read so you don’t wind up with a head full of data you are unable to process. You process facts, data and information with the help of wisdom. Wisdom is to be got through life experience — and books.
America is increasingly a land of communication. We’re all talking — we talk a lot — we’re writing memos, trying to inspire office workers, making the pitch to the client, conferring with the patient, speaking at the symposia, we’re making the deal.
If you hope to be a writer, here’s what will happen if you read books: you can be a writer. The author’s subject matter –history or poetry or a novel — will enter your mind. Suddenly the reality of a style will insinuate itself without your even fully noticing. It’s Murray Kempton’s style or Robert Frost’s — it’s David McCullough’s style or Willa Cather’s — but it will enter your mind and settle in. Which means a way of looking at the world, of viewing and of processing the true nature of life, will enter your mind. You will begin not to react but to ponder, to reflect.
You will imagine how Scott Fitzgerald’s Riviera looked along with him — you won’t be able not to — or how the stream and the small fire in Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories looked, and how the trout tasted.
These things will form colonies in your head. They will take up space and hold up a flag. They will say “I am the neural matter that is Emily Dickinson.’ ‘I am the cognitive territory of Leo Tolstoy, and I know what he said.’
It will change how your very mind works. And in some magical way the deep thoughts of others give a spark to, and almost give permission to, thoughts of your own that had been lurking about but never had the courage to present themselves…
Books helped reveal myself to me. I know that it was a book, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, read in college, that began to reveal to me that I was a political conservative. It was books — Saints for Sinners, and great biographies of Teresa of Avila and the Cure of Ars — that helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all. It was the first book I remember reading, a childrens’ biography of the Mayo Brothers, that provided, when I was 7 or 8, a breakthrough. When I got to the last page I burst into tears — not because it was a sad story but because the story had ended. Looking back, maybe this suggested to me that there was something about reading and writing that might figure in my future…
I earn a living writing a column each week only because I read books. I follow the news to know what’s happening, but I read books to understand what’s happening.
At some point in my late thirties I stopped reading fiction and turned almost exclusively to history and biography. I don’t know why. I think a youth reading novels was a search for the answer to the question “What is life like?” The history and biography is: “What happened? How did it end? How did we get through it? What can I learn that will help me understand the world?” I find now I go off on tears — a winter reading every book I can find on the Civil War, a summer devoted to the French Revolution, a few months on the Russia of Catherine the Great.
Finally there is the sheer comfort of it. When history turns murky I focus on crises and difficult eras that demanded wisdom to navigate. I try to understand what a crisis IS, how to look at human agency, who made it a little better, who made it a little worse –.
But lately for no special reason, and yet of course for special and particular reasons, I have gone back to the stories of journalists living through history, especially columnists living through big history, such as Walter Lippmann, and Dorothy Thompson. I am re-reading their biographies. How did they withstand the pressure of sharing their thoughts in public when the stakes were high? How did they handle being wrong, and embarrassed? What part of their brain and wit did they use to understand or misunderstand fascism, Hitler, communism, the beginnings of the Cold War. I reach back to the daily drama of those trying, in their way, to lead in this great disputatious nation.
And so my friends you will be texting today. You’ll be saying we’re at Brookland Pint, we’re at Busboys, come join us. You are making the plans of life and about to have fun. Fun involves logistics. Text away.
But tomorrow put down the smart phone, put aside the internet of things, find the real and actual THING of things. Read and be taken away in a way that enriches, that strengthens, that makes you smarter, more serious, more worthy.
Keep it up. Pass it on. If your generation doesn’t, it will disappear.
Civilization depends on it.
And so ends my chance to give you the advice the singing schoolchild made, unknowingly, to a bright, semi-wayward young man who would become a great one. “Pick up the book, take up the book” the schoolchild sang. And the man who would become St Augustine did, and changed himself, and changed our world.
Good fortune and high honors to the great and fabled class of 2017 of the Catholic University of America, in Washington, District of Columbia, in the United States of America. God bless you and keep you.”
[To read Ms. Noonan’s full address, please click here.]