Reading More Without Living Less

How Cross-Pollination Enhances Reading

October 5, 2012

Two days ago, my friend Jonathan commented on my post, The Benefits of Reading More Than One Book at a Time. In his comment, he mentioned the term cross-pollination (referring to Imagine, a book we had both read) as the label for the phenomenon that I planned to further write about in this post.

In spite of the controversy now surrounding the author, I believe the book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (my review here), is still valuable and shares some good ideas (we just might not know who to attribute all the brilliancy to?). The book is no longer available (unless you’re willing to pay extra on Amazon or Ebay), but may be still on some public library shelves.

What is cross-pollination?

In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer discussed how cross-pollination works in stimulating creativity — borrowing an idea from one field and applying that idea to another different field. Of course, I don’t think that the term is unique to him, but his use of the term in that specific context (and Jonathan’s reminding me of it) made me realize how this applies to ideas I pick up while reading, and in the case of this specific post, how those ideas also apply to my becoming a better reader.

I shared briefly about this concept when I stated, “Another interesting phenomenon is finding how much seemingly unrelated topics intersect. My psychology book might actually apply something I read in a parenting book. A cooking book might intersect with something I learned about history. And so on and so forth.”

“Sometimes the most important idea is the one we don’t even know we need.” – Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine

Reading books can be like going to yard sales.

I like to think of yardsaling as a helpful analogy to illustrate how this quote applies to my reading habits. As I’ve moved towards a more simple lifestyle and become a quasi-minimalist, I generally now only go to yard sales that have advertised something I know I’m specifically looking for. However, I still love the thrill of finding something I didn’t expect to see at that sale and realizing it would be exactly what I’ve needed all along. I may not have had it on my list of things to look for, but I could quite possibly end the day of yardsaling prizing it as my best find for the day.

It’s similar with reading: sometimes I go in expecting to read about a specific topic, but come out with astounding ideas on seemingly completely unrelated topics. I might go into a biography of Albert Einstein expecting to learn more about his life and that era of history, but instead I finish the book having read a section that totally revolutionizes my philosophy on childhood education and parenting. Or, I read a book on theology that influences my ideas of business. (I have an example of taking a term from a business book and applying it to parenting here.)

Ideas, philosophies, and worldview can rarely be compartmentalized, and reading and seeing the dots of life connect has helped me understand that to a greater degree.

It’s thrilling when this happens, and it is one of the reasons I’ve grown to love reading as much as I love going to yard sales. I can learn so much more than I ever thought I could from a book, in areas I wasn’t even expecting to learn. This motivates me to enjoy reading more, and continues to stimulate my love for learning and reading. Every new “find,” like finding a great deal at a yard sale, makes me want to go back and do it again. Thankfully, books are available more often than just on Saturdays mornings. 🙂

But I must note, caution must be taken not to read truths into areas where they can’t apply. The hubris of a past eureka moment can tempt us to create connections where there may be none.

My book selection is similar to my yard sale planning, too. I generally go specific places, and often know what I’m looking for. Occasionally, I go to one just because I’ve heard it’s a good location. And sometimes, though not frequently, I’ll see a sign and pull over to a random yard sale. Often I just find weird stuff, but occasionally I land upon a great treasure there, too.

To me, this also highlights the importance of reading outside just one field or only reading in areas we already know a lot about–diversity can often better inform us about the areas we think we already know a lot about.  And sometimes, it might be that totally random yardsale of a book that leads us to uncover buried treasure. 

Related, and considering my reading as a whole, every book I read enriches and informs the others. Being aware that this is occurring also helps me better retain what I’m reading.  

To illustrate, as I build a modicum of knowledge about John Adams (John Adams, McCullough), I’m better able to understand a biography about George Washington (Washington: A Life, Chernow). As my awareness of American history grows, I’m better able to understand a book dealing with contextualization throughout church history (Jesus Made in America, Nichols). And as I understand how history shaped American Evangelicalism, I’m better able to see behind the scenes when I read contemporary religious and theology books.  Reading books in greater quantity and with a diversity of subjects is a lot like connecting the dots, or like putting together a puzzle. With each new book you read, more dots are connected, and another piece of the puzzle is filled in.

Have you noticed how your reading connects? What important ideas have you found that you “didn’t know you needed?”

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  • Johanna Hanson October 6, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I have found this to be true, and it has really helped me to be free to read some things that I might otherwise have overlooked. I find having a philosophy of depth and breadth is important too. I do think there is value in getting to know a particular field in depth, but having the breadth of knowledge from many different fields adds perspective to our “depth” field.
    It also just makes us a more well-rounded individual to have breadth. And…we are more likely to be able to have intelligent conversations with others not in our depth field if we have breadth. Now I’m rambling. 🙂

    • Keren October 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      This could be it’s own blog post. 🙂 So if it’s rambling, it’s good rambling.

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