It is easy to see how reading is on the decline for many people today. With the rise of movies and TV with today’s technology, books have to work harder to compete with companies like Netflix. Then there are things we actually do read involving words, but those words are likely in a digital form on a blog or website. The printed versions of words come to us in the form of a newspaper or magazine. It takes a bit of effort then to find yourself reading a book. Most likely, the book is a recent release or a current best-seller.
Years ago I read a book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by former USC President Steven B. Sample (who passed away this year). It had a chapter about reading and explained something called the “fifty-year test.” This is a category of books that are still being read fifty years after they were written. Dr. Sample stated that reading these books will give you a deeper grasp of culture and perspective and set you apart from others. This is counter-intuitive (hence the book title) since most of us try to read to keep up with what’s going on right now. But I have noticed an unbelievable difference ever since I read that book and tried to pick my subsequent books accordingly. But how does a person ever get to a book which passes the fifty-year test that doesn’t completely bore them to sleep or drone on about irrelevant topics?
There are lots of ways for you to develop a new desire for reading, but here is one I find especially useful. Start with a modern day author you connect with (I’m referring here primarily to nonfiction books, but it can apply to fiction as well). As you read it look for other books that author quotes. You will often find the author referencing someone who strongly influenced their thinking. After you finish your current book, go and read a book from that other author next. You will likely see similar ideas but often from a different vantage point. Their books will probably be a few years older than the one you started with. Then repeat this process on this book until you find someone who influenced that author. Sometimes you might have to do a little research on the author to discover their influences if they don’t make it obvious in their writings.
Yet you can repeat this process over and over and see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
There are two distinct benefits to putting in the effort on this. First, you will quickly find books you enjoy that qualify for the fifty-year test. Before you know it you’ll be reading books that most people have never heard of and yet will resonate with you. Second, you will start to see how the different authors shaped the ideas themselves. This will give you an entirely different grasp on those ideas and how you can apply them in your life.
At the end of this, you put yourself in a position to continue the cycle as people learn of these ideas from you. What you’ll notice is that these connections don’t just go back in a straight, linear fashion, but rather start to spiderweb in different directions. That’s because each of us has numerous influential people in our lives. Therefore, if you find an author you love and three authors who influenced them, you now have three different lines to investigate. And if you can make it far enough back to finish off the influencers in any single line… then well done to you (I’ve yet to do it)! You will end up at what Steven B. Sample calls the “supertexts.”
Since you are reading my blog (and hopefully have already read my book Redeeming Pleasure), let me give you an example of how the chain works. You start with my writings, then find a person who has influenced me and read some of their material, and then find a person who influenced them and read some of their material (on and on). Here are two examples to prime the pump for you:
- Jeremy Jernigan –> Greg Boyd –> Jacques Ellul –> Soren Kierkegaard –>
- Jeremy Jernigan –> Brian Zahnd –> Rene Girard –> Kenneth Burke –>
That’s just two of many authors who have influenced me, and just one influencer for each of them. You can see how quickly this technique will broaden your horizons. Few people will take the time and effort to read this way, which is why it is doubling rewarding for those who do. You will find lots of ideas you relate with and plenty that you don’t. But reading like this will shape you in a far more profound way than simply purchasing the next book you walk past at the store. And when you realize how deep this well of material goes and how many authors you can use it on … well, then you’ll realize how little time you have to watch TV!