Any history of Catholic thought, and the rise of Western culture, has to mention the turning point in the conversion story of Aurelius Augustinus.
During a time of inner torment, the young man from North Africa withdrew into a garden. As Pope Benedict XVI told the story in 2008, he "suddenly heard a child's voice chanting a rhyme never heard before: tolle, lege, tolle, lege -- pick up and read, pick up and read. He … returned to the Pauline codex that he had recently read, opened it, and his glance fell on the passage of the Epistle to the Romans where the Apostle exhorts to abandon the works of the flesh and to be clothed with Christ."
The man who became St. Augustine picked up that book and, thus, he "changed himself and changed our world," said journalist Peggy Noonan, in her May 13 commencement address at the Catholic University of America.
That was the punch line in her urgent appeal for the graduates to grasp that there is much more to life than the fleeting contents of the glowing, omnipresent screens that dominate their days and nights.
Instead, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for commentary urged them 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."
Noonan said she certainly couldn't tell her own story without referencing one book after another, from biographies she read as a child to "Saints for Sinners: Nine Desolate Souls Made Strong by God," which as an adult "helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all." Her love of history, which helped shape her speechwriting for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, came from shelves of books.
The closest Noonan came to talking politics -- she made only two passing references to the current president -- was to note the degree to which the story of 2016 was told by journalists raised in cyberspace.
Most of today's scribes and politicos, she said, have "seen the movie and not read the book. They've heard the sound bite but not read the text of 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's the problem: If those attempting to make history have only a shallow sense of history, they will not be able to go on and make anything good."
This is also true of the candidates, she said. Thus, "almost everyone involved in politics or covering politics now -- is getting dumber. They're getting lost in a sea of dumb." At the same time, all the shallow, slanted online searches, opinions and news have produced "a big lying loop. Or at least a big, un-nourishing, inadequate one."
While it's easy to see some of the political implications of this all-digital life, Noonan said she was wasn't sure what she could say about the "faith implications of The World of Screens." However, she remains convinced that patient, in-depth reading is a key element of spiritual growth.
"Books demand immersion -- you enter them. It's deep in there, not flat and full of pictures and sounds," she said, reached by email. "Books simply say more, teach more deeply -- you can see not only what the saint believed but how he or she acted out that belief, incorporated it, in daily life. It is the daily concreteness -- and it comes from many-paged, many-chaptered books."
Thus, Noonan ended her address with this direct appeal: "Tomorrow put down the smartphone, 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 be lost. Civilization depends on it."