Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally.

Donald Miller

How Reading Promotes Empathy and Drives Innovation

Today’s guest post is by one of my favorite Portlandites (and people in general) Justin Zoradi. Justin runs a global education organization empowering young people to become leaders and fight poverty. He’s guest posted before and I hope he offers more to this blog in the future. You can read more of Justin’s musings over at www.justinzoradi.com

Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally.


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, theones 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 ReadersTravelersEmpathizers, 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.

– jz

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

  • I am having such a hard time absorbing those statistics. Can they really be right? I’m looking at the 4 -readers in our house, the overflowing book shelf, the boxes of books in our garage and just trying to imagine a life with no reading. I read the statistics to my 12 year old book worm and all he could say to each statistic is “HOW?!”

    I love what this post is saying about narcissism versus others centered stances. Thanks for some great food for thought. Now I must leave this blog and go read a book.

  • You’ve made some excellent connections here- I really appreciated your thoughts.

    In considering online book/eBook sales, etc. and comparing them to the statistics here, I think it’s clear that for the most part those who read REALLY read and are quite serious and consistent about it; and those who have not built the habit amazingly do go through life without books. Literacy campaigns, especially those targeted for children, are not fluff. It really is a crucial time. And let’s not forget the irreplaceable role of libraries, especially in low income areas! As you pointed out, reading is so much more than a pastime, or even a purely intellectual pursuit. Reading encompasses every area of identity and our impact in the world.


  • Danica

    Fascinating. I will have to check out your website.
    Thanks, Don, for giving this guy space on your blog.

  • Great post!

    When I bring this up to people who aren’t readers, I always get the same response: “I just can’t. I’m not a reader.”

    Any suggestions for those people? How does a non-reader become a reader?

    • Cari

      Read the Twilight series? It worked for my 13 year old niece 🙂

      • Oh Gosh. Just…No.
        Don’t even joke about that XD

        • Cari

          Seriously, before she read that series, she didn’t read for fun, now she’s hooked. Part of her motivation to read it was most certainly the hype and conversation from her friends, peer pressure maybe? Its like exercise, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you get off the couch. Ok, maybe that isn’t a great analogy, but there are a lot worse of things to read out there!

    • Like he said, read Harry Potter. 😉 Or now, the Hunger Games!
      I didn’t become a reader until I read Lonesome Dove in High School. I had to find something that got my attention…and said “poke” a lot. 😉

      Then, later on, I discovered I could learn all sorts of stuff from reading. Go figure.

      Now, as an adult, when TV and laziness plague me, I have to rememebr articles such as these, that it is healthy and good and wise for me to pick up that book and read it. It is often a decision for me and not always a passion.

      • Joe

        I became a reader after reading Blue Like Jazz. Not kidding.

    • East of Eden. It’s big and menacing and scary but I’ve had multiple people tell me it’s a story that made them fall in love with not just reading, but literature. And, it’s incredible. Seriously. It’s in my favorite book…and I’ve read a lot of books. 🙂

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  • Contrary to the author’s expectations, I’m amazed at those statistics, to the point that I took a look at the agency claiming them. That cannot be the case.

  • Those figures are so sad. I have a few friends that say they don’t read, and I cannot begin to tell them how they are missing out. One of my best friends is successful in business. He’s always reading something from Lou Holtz, Dave Ramsey, Larry Winget, you name it. I am more of a fiction man myself, but I’m getting back to reading nonfiction Christian books, as well as financial books. But as far as fiction goes, people, read the book before you see the movie. So many movies leave out so much vital and enjoyable stuff that you’ll find in the book. Speaking of nonfiction Christian books, I just picked up this little book to reread called Blue Like Jazz. Between penguin sex and sexy carrots, I’m entertained and astounded at Don’s communication of the Christian life.

  • Oh, thank you thank you thank you for this. As I struggle to move out in the dreams I believe God has planted in my heart and mind, I feel more and more the longing to read and travel more, and while I’ve sensed that they were somehow essential, I haven’t been able to articulate exactly why, and I’ve felt vaguely guilty. I’m going to read this through several times, Justin, and I’ll be grateful to you each time I do!

    • I certainly know traveling is vital to my existence!! Reading is more like veggies, fruit and hummus…healthy and good, but traveling, that’s like breath and water for me. 🙂

  • Jen

    How does a non-reader become a reader?
    I don’t know the complete answer to this question, but since I work with struggling readers every day (in elementary school), I would like to put in my two cents that if struggling readers never get help, of course they will never become readers. For those who consider themselves “readers” (as I do myself), reading was probably intuitive. It came easily. Naturally. For those very logical thinkers, the English language is a mess, doesn’t make sense, and is very frustrating. Throw down the book–I’ll never get this.
    Two VERY helpful tools for these non-readers:
    The Gift of Dyslexia (very helpful insight and helpful TOOLS to help the symbols in reading make sense)
    and Uncovering the Logic of English (Our English language DOES make sense–you just need the rules! You will be amazed at what you learn and it WILL help you read and spell)

    I am a passionate–voracious–reader of all books. And I am passionate about others loving to read, too!!

  • Just wow. Thanks for sharing these insights! I am astounded at those statistics, and sad for the masses of people out there who don’t enjoy reading as a regular part of their life. There is so much knowledge, so many ingenious ideas, so many new ways to look at things, all there for the taking among the pages of books. What a shame to not use these resources to create better lives for ourselves, our communties, and our world.

  • Amen and Amen. I’ll just add that leaders should read more fiction. I think for the reasons you stated about empathy. Much of leadership literature is center on MY goals and MY techniques. A good novel promotes self forgetfulness. Wrote more about that here: http://www.larryshallenberger.com/2011/07/18/leaders-are-readers-but-they-need-more-than-leadership-books/

  • Here here! The Lord gave us a BOOK for a reason. Reading words spreads the Word. Your connection to how it expands our souls and hearts as well as our minds is such an important one. Thank you for a great post!

  • Amy

    I’m not at all surprised at those statistics when I take a look at other family and friends. Also agree on the notion that more reading means less narcissism. There are those out there, though, like my husband, who prefer to learn by audio. He watches documentaries and listens to commentary and enjoys movies.

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  • Colleen

    I would love to have the direct link to that survey. I have been trying for about 6 months to find a reputable source for those statistics, not because I want to refute them, but because I think that they’re probably pretty accurate and I’d like to use that info in my doctoral dissertation! No source, no cite…
    Any help would be appreciated.

  • “the more a child reads, the likelier he or she is to be able to understand the emotions of others.”

    Yes! Finally, I know that I’m doing something right as a parent. My children both love to read books, and they get their love of reading from both me and my husband. I definitely want them to develop empathy, too, but I never considered the link between the two.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Justin.

  • I’m TOTALLY surprised by those stats. I mean…I just can’t imagine not wanting to read. It’s a good reminder, though, to continue to value reading, and telling, stories.

  • This is a great article. And it is a very sobering article as well. Not reading, not exploring differences, not seeking to be challenged by what we read turns us into blind followers, ignorant followers outside the church and rigid fundamentalists within the church. I have seen far too much of that over the last 30 years in the Evangelical churches I have been involved with. Thnak you for sharing.

  • K8

    I wonder how many people don’t read because they find it too difficult and time consuming? My friend doesn’t like to read because he has a learning disability that takes him longer to read (he will do it, but I can read 5 pages to his 1). For someone who works more than 40 hour weeks, combined with a learning disability/inadequate reading skills, this task can prove difficult.

    I’m wondering how Christians can encourage reading among adults, particularly when literacy is discouraged and not celebrated.

  • Rather worrying statistics – but a fascinating article. It’s good to know that reading is linked to empathy. I can quite understand that. In order to read a book, especially fiction (although also true of non-fiction), you have to be able to engage your imagination – to live the “story”. You have to be able to imagine the situation someone else is in – to put yourself in their shoes. In other words, you have to be able to empathise!

  • I’m floored by those statistics. Really? How can that be true? I can’t imagine a world without books. Yikes.

    Now that I’ve got that out of my system, thank you for this post. Certainly some good points here. So, what’s the solution? How do we transform a society of non-readers back to what it used to be? It seems the internet and television are certainly a factor in this phenomenon–not only are they distractions from a good book, but they provide easy outlets for narcissism in the extreme.

  • As always, Justin, I appreciate your commentaries.
    Like some of the other posts, the statics catch me off gaurd. They do seem a bit grim. But I do wonder if they are slightly offset by electronic periodcals, libraries, big box stores that sell books and the internet. Centuries ago, people heard their tales from traveling bards. Perhaps viral links are the new storytellers of the 21st century. Information – both non-fiction, newsworthy stuff and fiction are to be read all over the web. I realize it may not be in a 200 page book, but it still connects people…or maybe I’m just trying to ignore the stats?

  • Thanks Don for posting this! I too agree about the value and importance of reading and how it helps us in so many ways. I grew up going to the library with my parents. Reading, along with a personal faith, are two of the biggest gifts my mom (and my dad as well) gave me.

  • Does reading a lot of blogs count as reading, or do the words have to be wrapped up in a beautiful hard back?

  • Erin

    Yes! Whether or not all the commenters above agreed with the statistics or not, I have to agree that reading – especiailly fiction where you emotionally invest in specific characters – breeds empathy. And in this age of rampant narcissism we could all use to beef up our empathetic “muscles”, so to speak. Thanks for a great guest post!

  • chris

    With a culture that celebrates the vapid Real House Wives of Idontgiveash!t, it’s hard to say that a lack of reading is the mineshaft canary…

  • Thank you for this excellent article. I have also read that people who are happy are most likely to read fiction, rather than non-fiction; they seem to have an easier time temporarily letting go of their own concerns. Seems the opposite of narcissism.

  • Thanks for directing me to a source for data like this. I had seen those figures but hadn’t been able to track down a reputable source. And “I read it on the Internet” does not fly anywhere! As a writer, how is the popularity of young-adult fiction affecting the literary world (in your humble opinion)?

  • Zach U.

    I’m in my freshman year of college and my level of reading has exponentially increased. Not only for classes but also just for pleasure.

    But interestingly, I have found that reading has unleashed a new sense of idealism within myself. My passion for life and growth has never been higher. I generally care more about issues this world is facing and want to do something to change them.

    Can honestly say that I’ve never been happier.

    I remember the book that started it all. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. It’s amazing the power that a simple book can have on someone’s life.

  • “I’m worried that the lack of reading is a canary in the mineshaft, warning us of a stifling narcissism in our midst.”

    That is an excellent insight. I’d never thought about the connection between reading and empathy, but it makes sense. Most media we consume feeds our own consumption mentality while doing little to broaden our view of the world. I almost wonder if the explosion of brainless media offerings (as referenced in the comment above) is at all related to our general lack of reading. In a world without reading we are more willing to be entertained in banal ways, thus the reality tv industry, etc. This was a great post, and I’m grateful for the reminder of the importance of reading.

  • Those statistics are staggering! If we could just get individuals to read their Bibles (much less other books) the world would be different.

  • I wish we could institute “No Television Month.”

  • Mary

    It’s been my experience that readers can be made. As a life-long reader and a reading specialist and a mother of three readers, I think environment has a lot to do with making readers. I’ve read aloud to my children from infancy to eighth grade. My kids could sit through the Chronicles of Narnia at the age of four. My oldest and youngest (both girls) have always been avid readers, with widely-ranging tastes in both fiction and non-fiction. My son, however, had some serious learning problems and hated to read, didn’t learn to read until the fourth grade and never voluntarily picked up a book until the eighth grade. But he loved being read to. We filled the house with books and magazines, and never said “no” to a reasonable request for reading material. The girls continue to read and still do. Our son, at 26, is now a voracious reader of non-fiction only, but has developed a love of certain books and excellent understanding of what he does read. He reads politics, theology, and history.

    The statistics quoted are staggering, but they do reflect what I have seen out there. There are so many exciting forms of easy entertainment available to compete with books that it is easy for parents (and kids) to choose them more and more over the joys of reading and being read to. Choosing to develop a healthy reading habit has become similar to choosing to eat a healthy diet – there’s a lot of media junk food out there to rob us of good nutrition…

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  • What is it with us? Do we really think that just because we’ve buried ourselves deeply in this digital age that books in any form are obsolete? I noticed that you don’t seem to have any stats about digital or ebook purchases and reading. This is a frightening mental disconnection. I share your fears/concerns.

  • Two things. 1. I was never a reader until I had children and needed to actually learn. 2. Now I am such an avid reader and have reared 5 total book worms, that these statistics seems totally unbelievable. God help us!

  • Fabulous post.

  • Hey Donald and Justin,

    Are you okay if I use this piece with my 9th graders? When I’m not writing and parenting, I teach English. My students are pre-AP and the majority are readers, but I know this would generate some discussion.


    • Of course Leanne. Honored you’d use it. Thanks! – Justin

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  • Tricia L

    Seems to not follow lateral thinking to me… so what of the reading narcissists? Is it the narcissism that created the non-reader or the non-reading that precipitated the narcissism? Seems you’re arguing for the latter. There’s more under the water line here I suspect…

  • Public schooling is doing a great job churning out mindless drones who are never able to find the value in life long learning, let alone reading, after they leave it’s hallowed halls. It’s no coincidence that kids are required by law to go to “school” and they come out on the other side unable to think. If we keep people imprisoned within their minds, they will stay imprisoned in life.

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  • I sure hope the advent of ebooks is changing those stats … they’ve certainly changed how much long form reading I do (easily a 10x increase). My battle wasn’t interest, but access — now it takes seconds to acquire a book, and I carry my library in my pocket.

    I also wonder if there’s an intro- or extrovert component. Reading a book is an independent venture, and also signals to other people that you’re not available for interaction. Great for introverts, but not so attractive for extroverts … the majority of the population.

  • I was a history major in undergrad. A professor taught me one of the most valuable lessons to date. She said that when you read non-fiction, you shouldn’t try to read every word. Read the introduction and conclusion to each chapter. Then read every body paragraph until the point is made. Sometimes that’s the first sentence. Sometimes the paragraph is structured inductively with the point being made at the end. When I started following her advice, my reading retention went through the roof, and I started getting all my college reading accomplished.

    There is so much valuable information out there for people to learn. The more you take in, the more you know, the more you change.

  • “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” – RW Sockman

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  • This is a well-written and insightful article, but I do feel the need to point out that the quoted statistics do not belong to a study by The Jenkins Group. There never was such a study. After reading this article I tried to track down the source for the study, only to find that these statistics have been erroneously attributed to The Jenkins Group for almost a decade. Here’s more information on how I went about this:


    • Thanks Rayna! Really appreciate this. Your blog was terrific as well.

      I had some of the same trouble as you did finding the source of these stats. Initially, I read them in a magazine article on an airplane (the name of which I can’t recall) with the Jenkins Group as the source.

      But your investigative journalism was awesome. Well done. Love that you called them too. Appreciate your insight.

      As you know, the point of the post isn’t simply to highlight those stats, but the power of reading and its importance in society. So I do hope people don’t get too hung up on the quotes being a decade old.

      Regardless, thank you. – Justin

  • kate

    Thank you for this article. I love reading. My husband never has, until lately. Since we began homeschooling our son, they have both become avid readers!! They both have ADHD (neither medicate). I think their aversion stemmed from this. I kept stressing how great it is to get lost in a book. After reading HP, Narnia, and a few other carefully chosen books to them both, they finally get it now! I still read aloud to both of them, but I am so proud of them when they voluntarily pick up a book. My husband now reads C.S. Lewis, and my seven year old is devouring a chapter book a day! My extra bedroom is going to be a library soon!

  • Nathan Phillips

    The Harry Potter part at the end made me smile.

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