I’ve climbed Mount Everest. Struggling desperately for breath and consciousness, I gazed below at a gathering storm that would nearly kill me, and would claim some of my friends. I’d spend the rest of my life wondering if my presence on that mountain had caused their deaths.

I’ve crossed the Hellespont with Alexander, the Alps with Hannibal, the Rubicon with Caesar, the Pacific with Magellan, even the Rockies with Sacagawea—both triumph and disaster awaiting most of them on the other side.

I’ve witnessed the awful battles of Cannae, Gettysburg and Stalingrad. I’ve watched transfixed while Atticus Finch futilely defended Tom Robinson, Othello tragically strangled Desdemona, Theodora boldly saved Byzantium, and Sophie made her terrible choice.

Not to namedrop, but I’ve befriended George Washington. And, let me tell you, he was hardly the saint I’d been told of. He was rash in his youth, and too often a bumbling fool as a military strategist. Nonetheless, his character and vision enabled him to lead an army of farmers to victory, and to guide many far-more brilliant men into founding a nation. This flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all Washington inspired me much more profoundly than his textbook marble statue.

Deep in the heart of windswept Mongolia, Genghis Khan showed me his sacred mountain, source of his strength. Afterwards, I rode with him as he ruthlessly created the largest empire the world has ever seen, then made of it a Camelot of open trade, religious freedom, the world’s first meritocracy where a man was judged not by his name or birth, but his character and skills. However, like all empires then and now, I watched it falter, then crumble into dust, leaving only an enduring legacy of ideas.

Ah, it’s those ideas and the questions that gave them birth that are immortal! I’ve long pondered how to reconcile the apparently conflicting notions of life and mortality, equality and liberty, individualism and community, dogma and existentialism, republicanism and federalism, reason and faith, idealism and pragmatism…. Perhaps wisdom comes with the recognition that, in this imperfect world, we can never find a happy balance between any of them. No, we must make do with tortured compromises, best guesses, callow mistakes, a panorama not of black and white but messy grays, and ultimately the realization that life is too often a tragedy.

Literature tells the story of this noble tragedy. And it’s by reading it that I, in one still-incomplete lifetime, have seen and done so much, met all those fascinating people, and confronted so many of life’s issues, most of them far beyond my own narrow experience. Literature enables me to touch immortality: to see the world through so many other people’s eyes, both living and long-dead, watch them face excruciating moral dilemmas; and, if I haven’t yet learned from their mistakes, perhaps I can at least one day accept my own failures more graciously.

Malcolm X reminisced how literature transformed his life as well, in prison. Curled up on the floor next to the bars of his cell, reading late into the night by the garish light down the passage, “I never felt so free in my life.”

And Thomas Jefferson warned of reading’s importance in a country like ours: “Democracy depends upon a nation that reads.”

You see, reading makes one both interested and interesting. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, one of a citizen’s most important responsibilities.

Which is why I learned recently with such horror of America’s declining culture: One in four adults didn’t read a single book last year. And the national average dropped in the last seven years from ten books per year to just four. Meanwhile, too many teachers chasing ever more elusive test scores feed their students worksheet after worksheet, instead of story after story, novel after novel. They’re creating, at our bidding, a generation of Americans who’ll hate reading.

Some day, many centuries hence, someone somewhere will read of this, and shake her head at the tragedy—but it won’t be a noble one.