The Magic and Power of Reading

I saw a poster once that said, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” I thought of my first grade teacher, Miss Enniert at James A. Garfield School. Although I can’t even remember what she looked like, I realize she was the main person who taught me how to read. She developed in me that incredible skill that eventually turned into a life-long passion. And so today I publicly say: “Thank you, Miss Enniert, for teaching me how to read!”

Source: Pixabay)

The ability to read is a marvelous gift. But what exactly is reading? Simply put, reading is a complex process of decoding signs or symbols in order to derive meaning from them. Imagine if you couldn’t read and you saw a book for the first time. What would you see? A bunch of pages with little black squiggly marks on them. When I was in Korea, I toured an elementary school with a library that had over 10,000 books—all in Korean, of course. I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be able to read a single book in that library—because I didn’t know the code to decipher all those squiggly symbols.

Reading is shaped by the reader’s prior knowledge, experience, attitude, and culture. That’s why Edmund Wilson could declare: “No two persons ever read the same book.” When we read, we usually read silently and without forming the words with our lips. But in the 4th Century, St. Augustine remarked on St. Ambrose’s “unusual” way of reading: He read silently and without moving his lips!

Literacy rates (which include both reading and writing) differ from country to country. Here are a few countries and their literacy rates: Russia, 99.7%, Canada, 99%; Australia, 99%; United States, 97.9%; Mexico, 95%, India, 72%; Ethiopia 49.1%. In some countries there is a

Source: Pixabay)

significant gap between male literacy and female literacy. For example, in Afghanistan male literacy is 52%, female literacy is 24%. A country with one of the lowest literacy rates is Niger in western Africa: Male literacy is 19.1%, while female literacy is 11%. Today world literacy is 86.3%, or 90% for males and 82% for females.

Here are 10 facts about reading that are worth pondering:

1) Worldwide, people spend an average of 6.5 hours a week reading.

2) In the U.S. 63 % of the adult population of prisoners are functionally illiterate. Whereas 85% of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

3) The Penguin paperback was created in 1935 to make books as affordable as cigarettes.

4) Throughout history, for religious or political reasons, books have been censored or burned.

5) Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” (His classic book tells of a futuristic world in which all books are burned. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire.)

6) Half of all the books sold today are to people over the age of 45.

7) Women buy 68% of all the books sold.

8) One in 4 adults have not read a book in the past year.

(Source: Pixabay)

9) International literacy day is September 8.

10) Reading (and writing) are brain-stimulating activities that have been shown to slow down cognitive decline.

Many beautiful words have been used to describe the magic and power of reading. Here are two of my favorites:

Elizabeth Hardwick, literary critic, novelist, short story writer: “The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wider kind. It is a moral illumination.”

Mary Schmich, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist: “Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere.”

If you are still reading this, thank a teacher! And thank God for your good fortune to be a reader!

What role does reading play in your everyday life? in your spiritual life?

What impact has modern technology had on your reading?

Why do you read “Sunflower Seeds”?

Today’s song is “Seek Ye First,” written by Karen Lafferty and sung here by the Maranatha Singers. As scripture says, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The gift of reading gives us access to God’s Word found in the Bible:


Do you feel moved to share anything with us today—about reading, about something said in this reflection or the song?

PS: Thank you for your prayers for my annual retreat. Every day I prayed for my dear “Sunflower Seeds Community.” I ask for your prayers for a retreat I will be giving this coming weekend at Benet House Retreat Center in Rock Island, IL. Thank you! … And of course, I join with you in praying for peace on this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001… and for all our brothers and sisters suffering from the effects of hurricanes Harvey and Irma…




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  1. Kathleen Magiera on September 11, 2017 at 5:18 am

    Sr. Melannie,

    I work with teacher candidates who then teach struggling readers. It is amazing to watch these teacher candidates get these young people to read a little more. Thanks for this blog.

    God bless!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 1:28 pm

      Kathleen, It is a special privilege to work with future teachers. God bless your work! Melannie

  2. Dianne Manias on September 11, 2017 at 9:18 am

    I recently decided not to renew the publication I had been using daily for prayer, scripture & reflection, etc. but, I knew I would need something to keep me focused in living my life as a Christian….as a Child of God.
    Today, I remembered your name when I thought of your book “Traits of a Healthy Spirituality”, so here I am on your website. Yes, I am grateful to be able to read & those who taught me to read. Lately, however, I seemed to be distracted when it comes to reading, as well as remembering what I’ve read. I’m looking forward to your short daily meditations/song which, I believe, will help me stay focused on one thought for the day. I will be sharing your website with my Cursillo friends & when we pray together tomorrow, we will remember the retreat, you & all participants.
    We have shared together your book “Traits of a Healthy Spirituality”.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      Dear Dianne, Welcome to “Sunflower Seeds.” It’s good to have you with us! And thank you for responding. I hope you find this blog helpful for your spiritual life… Melannie

  3. Chris Keil on September 11, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you.
    Today I LOVE to read. I am in a book club because I wanted to have more exposure to different styles and types of books. I have enjoyed and loved learning so much from my reading.
    I will say, I didn’t like it at all in high school. I now look back and although I know we “had to read” certain books, I’m certain that I really did! Maybe just read the cliff notes or skated by in class, (Of course it wasn’t YOUR class!!!!!)
    I am now starting to read books that I “supposedly” read in HS, just to see what they were or if I remember them differently, or at all.
    When are you coming to Texas?????? Miss you!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 1:34 pm

      Dear Chris, I’m so glad you’re in a book club… And I’m SURE you read all the books I assigned when I had you in my English class long ago… Yes, it’s interesting to re-read a book you read years ago–to measure your own growth… I have no talks lined up for Texas at the present. Sorry… When are you going to be in Ohio?! Thanks again, Chris! Melannie

      • Chris Keil on September 18, 2017 at 11:39 am

        Actually, I’m coming after Thanksgiving to see my mom………….I’ll email you.

  4. Kathy Donnermeyer on September 11, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    What role does reading play in my everyday life? It is everything.
    It is my livelihood, and that of my daughter’s. I work as an editor for a publishing company. If I couldn’t read, I would have no job. My first daughter had a very difficult time learning to read in first grade; this despite having been read to everyday of her life, and taken to the library from the time she was a baby and toddler. She finally figured it out, and now is a librarian!

    Reading is very important to my spiritual life. The Bible and many other books keep me on the journey.

    My entire family reads. They read mostly on electronic devices, but I still like holding an actual book.

    Finally, why do I read Sunflower Seeds? I attended a retreat that you led at the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati a few years ago, and have followed this ever since. Thank you for all the reflections that start my Monday off on a positive note.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm

      Dear Kathy, Thank you for your beautiful response to this blog. It seems as if reading does run in your family! I’m glad we had the chance to meet in Cincinnati. It’s good to have you as a reader. Thanks again! Melannie

  5. noelle anderson on September 11, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    I am thinking of my mother today. She was a first grade for 40 years and she taught hundreds of children to read. She was my inspiration for my love of reading. I have been in a book club over ten years with a group from my church. The leader and founder of our group is now suffering of cancer and is on her death bed . I will miss her.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 2:56 pm

      Dear Noelle, It sounds as if your dear mother was a real role model for you when it came to reading… If you’ve been in a book club for over ten years, it must really be enriching for you… And I will remember the “founder” in prayer… Thanks for sharing! Melannie

  6. john hopkins on September 11, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    As usual, thank you, Sr. Melannie. I agree with every single word! If I were still teaching, I would have begun each class citing some of the facts from this blog. Alas, that is not the case, but I suppose that shouldn’t stop me from alerting my former colleagues of this gold mine of reading information! Love that Elizabeth Hardwick quote! Was is C.S. Lewis who said, “We read to know we are not alone”? Heading to Hawaii this Friday! Keep us in your prayers. Thanks!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 2:58 pm

      Dear John, It’s always good hearing from you. I detect a bit of nostalgia for the classroom in your response…Thanks for adding the quote from C.S. Lewis… and have a wonderful time in Hawaii. You deserve it! Melannie

  7. Herb on September 11, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Dear Sister Melannie I was taught to read by SND & think of them often .What dedicated Ladies they were.I too love to read books Thanks for Sunflower Seeds Herb

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      Dear Herb, So you were taught by the SND’s. How nice! I’m glad you viewed them as “dedicated ladies.” Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

  8. Missy Butler on September 11, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    I read Give us this Day-that is where I found you. I would be lost without reading my daily prayers.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:03 pm

      I’m glad you found me in “Give Us This Day” (put out by Liturgical Press.) I use it too for my daily prayer–as well as “Living Faith” and “Living with Christ.” They all feed my soul… Thanks for sharing, Missy. Sr. Melannie

  9. Ardy on September 11, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Hi Sister Melanie
    My fondest memories of childhood is reading. We did not have a lot of things because of our large family but we did have access to the library. My sister Claudia and I spent summers under three large fir trees ….reading books. It became a life long exchange for the both of us. Every week in the summer months we walked down to the library and spent a couple of hours there deciding which books we wanted to read. Thank you for bring back this delightful memory. Of my friendship with my sister and where our love of books started.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:06 pm

      Ardy, Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory from your childhood. I was touched by your description of you and your sister reading under the fir trees… Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie

  10. Rosemary on September 11, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    I really like this reflection on reading. I love to read, was a teacher and now I encourage my grandchildren to read. I do “book club” with the two who live far from me. I am really looking forward to meeting you at Benet House this week end.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:08 pm

      Dear Rosemary, How nice that you encourage your grandchildren to read–and that you do “book club” with two of them. What a nice way to stay connected to them… I look forward to meeting you in person this weekend at Benet House in Rock Island, IL. Thanks for sharing! Sr. Melannie

  11. June on September 11, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Love all your blog posts! I look forward to them every Monday morning when I spend time reading scripture and reflecting. And prayers, of course. Readings has been and still is a big part of my life. My daughter also is an avid reader and she became a Literary Arts Teacher about 10 years ago. She just loves teaching! Teachers aren’t thanked enough. They spend countless hours at home working on school work. I really enjoyed all of your facts. I plan on passing them on on facebook as I know most people don’t have a clue about literacy. Thank you!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:11 pm

      Dear June, How nice that you are the mother of an “avid reader.” I’m sure you’re very proud of your daughter… Yes, I also think that teachers aren’t thanked enough. But every now and then, a student comes forward. One thank you note from a student is worth more than gold! Thank you for your response to this blog. Sr. Melannie

  12. Marla on September 11, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    What a wonderful topic. My parents taught me to read. They bought subscriupions th children’ magazines and took me to the library at an early age. Do not recall too much re grade school reading but in High School at Notre Dame Academy my world widened thanks to Sister Kathleen. As freshman we read books by Antoin StExupery, the Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton and many other classics. Poetry was a staple and memorization was an essential. I truly thank my parents and Educators I have loved for instilling this lasting Passion for reading in me.
    If it is not out of place, I would like to recommend three books, I read and was touched by during the last month. I do not recall all authors or the exact spelling of names but the titles are correct
    and 3. (The one that touched me most personally). WHEN BREATHE BECOMES AIR. by Paul K.
    Happy reading.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 9:01 am

      Marla, Having known your dear parents, I can just see them teaching their precious little girl to read. How lucky you were to have them! And thank you for the book recommendations. I’ve read the first two and really, really enjoyed them. They were both powerful!I’ve added the third title to my list of books to read. Thanks again, Marla! Melannie

  13. M on September 11, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Sr Henrietta HM taught me to read. She would call each one of us in the class individually to her desk. It was almost magical to catch on to learning to read.i still love to read, but also enjoy recorded books.
    How good is our good God. Love you sr. Melannie

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 8:56 am

      What a precious image you have kept alive in your “memory bank”…Such individual attention was given by Sr. Henrietta, HM. Obviously it meant a lot to you.. Thanks for sharing it! Melannie

  14. Josita on September 11, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    Dear Melannie,
    I, too, always loved to read. I grew up in Manhattan and remember excitingly walking to the library to exchange books.
    More recently, when we were adding an addition to our academy on Staten Island, our architect tried to convince us to build a totally electronic library. No way. Nothing is better than holding a book, reading and enjoying turning the pages!
    God bless my teachers and parents and family members who encouraged me to read…I’m forever grateful and passed my love for books on to my own students.
    Praying for you as you facilitate your next retreat. Love, Josita

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 8:54 am

      Dear Josita, Your decision to build a library with actual books is an interesting one. I have seen totally electronic libraries. I would be interested in readers who have an opinion on this matter… Thanks for writing–and for reading my blog! Melannie

  15. Sister Ruth Gehres on September 12, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Hi Melannie . . . a good friend sent me this reflection because she knew I would identify with it. I think I knew how to read, at least a little, when I entered first grade 78 years ago. But it was my first-grade teacher, Miss Martha Bower, who turned me into an eager reader. Before I entered the Ursuline community (I’m still there), I went with my mother to visit Miss Martha. She was so happy to know I was going to be teacher . . . like her! I began by teaching first-graders to read, and eventually taught literature in college. My world has expanded many times over because of BOOKS! A good teacher never dies. Thank you, Miss Martha!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:15 pm

      Dear Ruth, God bless Miss Martha and all teachers! She really made an impression on you. What a wide range of experience you have had–from teaching first graders to college students. I’m glad your friend sent you a copy of this post. And I’m grateful that you responded to it! Melannie

  16. Ann Jurata on September 12, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful reminder that reading gives and opportunity to experience the entire world! My husband was a reading teacher and also wrote a spelling program – so we indeed appreciate books, papers and all written information.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      Thank you, Ann, for responding to this blog. I’m glad both you and your husband share a love and appreciation for the written word! Melannie

  17. Cathy on September 12, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    I don’t remember which one of my wonderful teachers taught me how to read, but one of my favorite memories is my mother & I reading together at bedtime, “Little House on Prairie” books..I have had the love of reading ever since then! Both parents truly showed me the love of reading. My mother was not an educated person (but she was still one of the smartest women I knew) she always had a book to read at the end of her busy day. My father had two books.. one for the family room reading, and one for the bedtime! Now so many years later, I feel something missing if I don’t have a book I am reading. I keep a list of books I read every year, and they are my favorite way to decorate! I still have those Little House books we read together too…
    I first learned about your wonderful writings while reading the daily devotional Living Faith. I looked up your website, and having been from Cleveland, my daughter just graduated from John Carroll, I felt a connection to you and your wonderful writing. You are bookmarked on my computer and I always enjoy your writings. I would love someday to go to one of your retreats as well… Take care!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 12, 2017 at 3:22 pm

      Dear Cathy, I really appreciated your words about your mother… And I’m like you: “I feel something is missing if I don’t have a book I am reading.” Thank you too for your positive words about my writing. We must be something of “soul mates”… Thanks for responding to this blog, Cathy! Melannie

  18. Linda on September 12, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    I am a recently retired librarian..finally, I have time to read all those wonderful books I’ve been suggesting to other people over the years. May I recommend “A Piece of the World”, by Christina Baker Kline. It’s the intriguing (fictional) account of the woman in the famed Wyeth painting
    “Christina’s World”.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 13, 2017 at 10:11 am

      Dear Linda, Thanks for the tip on another good book to add to my list! It sounds fascinating. Thanks for writing! Melannie

  19. Thomas DeFreitas on September 13, 2017 at 12:07 am

    A beautiful tribute to reading and to the power of words, to the liberating force of literacy, to the grace of being able to decipher those squiggles into significance!

    Why do I read Sunflower Seeds? I haven’t visited in a while, but because it is a peaceful place whose blogger is an apostle of encouragement in a world that needs as many encouragers as it can get!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 13, 2017 at 10:15 am

      Dear Tom, It was good hearing from you again! I loved your phrase “the liberating force of literacy.” Well said! And I’m glad my blog can provide some encouragement for all of us as we walk the uphill path called life. Thanks again for responding! Melannie

  20. Chris on September 13, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Sr. Melannie,

    As always, I enjoy reading Sunflower Seeds. I began reading after I met you at a day of reflection you conducted at Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman Alabama, although I had been reading you in Living Faith for many years. I enjoy your interesting and inspiring approach to everyday topics.
    I’ve enjoyed reading it seems, all my life. I can’t exactly remember my early reading teachers, but they were Srs. of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

    I have fond memories of the Book Mobile coming to our town, as we lived in a rural community in Pennsylvania. Do you remember the legislation that created the book mobiles? Authored by Carl Elliott.
    Other favorite memory was going to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, as we had relatives we stayed with and a favorite outing was to take out books at a HUGE library.

    Lastly, when I have the great privilege to proclaim God’s Word as a lector at Mass, I say a silent prayer of thanksgiving for His gift to me, of giftedness for reading and for the opportunity to proclaim.

    Thank you Sr. for your continued inspirations.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 14, 2017 at 9:40 am

      Dear Chris, I have very fond memories of my time in Cullman, Alabama… Thank you for reminding us of the value of those book mobiles! And libraries. (I wrote a blog several years ago about my library card!) And yes, I agree: what a privilege to be a lector at Mass. Thank you for sharing your insights with us! Melannie

  21. Pat on September 13, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    I am grateful to the sister who taught me how to read in first grade. But my love of reading came from my mother. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up but the free library was two blocks away and my mother always made sure we had books from there and that we had library cards when we were old enough. She read to us at night and even when I got older I liked to listen her read to my brothers and sisters. The world of books is world where I feel peace and security.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 14, 2017 at 9:42 am

      Dear Pat, Thank you for adding how many of us were encouraged to read by our parents. To this day, I still love to be read to. When I drive distances, I always have a book on CD for the trip. It makes the trip more enjoyable! Melannie

  22. Rose on September 14, 2017 at 11:21 am

    I remember my father teaching me the alphabet and rudimentary reading skills before I started kindergarten! I’m pretty sure my love of reading came from him. I spoke with someone recently who had been to a developing country. She told me she realized the depth of poverty in the area she visited when she learned there were no libraries–it was unthinkable for her. How we take things for granted!

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