If you’re looking for a way to learn (and remember) more about the subjects that matter to you, snowball reading is an incredibly effective study method – and it doesn’t take much work or effort. Just a commitment to read about the things you care about…
A Tale of Two Bonhoeffer Biographies
A few years ago I came across a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by his friend, Eberhard Bethge. At the time, all I knew about him was that he was a Christian who lived in Germany during Hitler’s reign (and I thought I had heard he was executed, though I wasn’t entirely sure about that).
Reading Bethge’s book changed my life.
The following year, there were a lot of Christians raving about Eric Metaxas’s biography on Bonhoeffer. At first, I wondered whether it would be worth checking out. After all, Bethge’s book was a massive tome (weighing in at over 1,000 pages).
What could I possibly gain from reading Metaxas’s book when I’d already read the ultimate Bonhoeffer biography? But since I’d enjoyed hearing about his life so much, I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
Though Metaxas’s book wasn’t nearly as comprehensive, it did examine Bonhoeffer from a very different perspective. And as I read, I saw certain events in new light.
It made me think more deeply about Bonhoeffer, his story, and his influence.
Make That Three Bonhoeffer Biographies…
The year after reading Metaxas’s book, I got a free copy of Charles Marsh’s biography of Bonhoeffer to review. As I read it, I discovered a completely different interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s life (especially when compared to Metaxas’s book). Marsh completely left out events that Bethge had spent chapters on, and he read things into other events that neither Bethge nor Metaxas touched.
Seeing these different perspectives on the same life fascinated me. So I figured I might as well round it off by doing a little reading from Bonhoeffer’s own works. That’s when I dove into The Cost of Discipleship, his exposition on the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’
After three biographies and one of Bonhoeffer’s own works, I was understanding him in ways I never would have otherwise. And in doing so, I learned the power of ‘Snowball’ reading.
What is Snowball Reading? An Effective Study Method
Snowball reading is an effective study method. It involves choosing a topic to study, picking five or so good books, reading them in quick succession, and reflecting on how they interact with one another. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, your understanding of the topic will grow exponentially.
Here are a few benefits you can enjoy from this effective study method:
Think about the last book you read.
I’m not talking about the last book you were reading. I’m talking about the last book you finished.
Now, how much of it do you remember? Can you recall the key events or ideas? And if so, how much detail can you give?
It’s likely that you don’t remember much. If you took notes or read it in a discussion group, you may remember a little more than normal but the sad reality is that we forget way more than we remember when reading or studying.
This is just the way our brains work.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Snowball reading enables us to remember far more of what we read through the use of repetition.
There were events that I learned in Bethge’s book but that I had forgotten by the time I got to Metaxas’s. When I came across them in the second biography, it was like a light coming on.
“Oh yea! I’d forgotten about that,” I thought to myself. This pushed the events and words of Bonhoeffer’s life deep into my mind. And when I read Marsh’s biography, they burrowed even more deeply.
After having read three Bonhoeffer biographies, I remember far more about his life than I would if I would’ve only read one.
Snowball reading has the power to implant ideas, thoughts, and processes into your mind. It will help you remember more of the things your studying. And it will be much more likely to become a part of your library of thoughts.
Gain Greater Perspective
Reading three biographies of Bonhoeffer – all from completely different perspectives – has helped me develop a much more robust picture of who he actually was.
A lot of evangelical Christians loved Metaxas’s book on Bonhoeffer because Metaxas described him in very evangelical terms. He made him seem like he’d be right at home attending your average American megachurch. But Bonhoeffer was not a conservative, evangelical American.
Charles Marsh, on the other hand, argued that Bonhoeffer was actually a closeted homosexual – an idea that Metaxas wouldn’t have dreamed of putting forth. And while the overall story of Marsh’s Bonhoeffer was the same as Metaxas’s, the details of their pictures were often very different.
And both Metaxas and Marsh understood Bonhoeffer differently than Bethge, who was a German and actually knew the man.
One man. Three perspectives. All very different.
And though I have my favorite biography (Bethge’s) and my least favorite (Marsh’s), I appreciate the perspective that each brought to the table. They all helped me gain a greater understanding of Bonhoeffer and his impact on the world.
Gain Greater Understanding
This is the power of snowball reading. It doesn’t just help us remember the facts, it helps us understand those facts.
As we listen to different authors and thought-leaders interact, we’re able to see common threads as well as divergences. We’re left with a fuller, more robust picture of the way things actually are, instead of how a single person sees them.
Think about it in terms of plot. There are multiple ways to develop a plot (three-act structure, the hero’s journey, Dan Harmon’s story circle, Kishotenketsu, etc). As you study these different ways of understanding stories, you’ll start to see the big concepts about plot in a fundamentally different way. You’ll see the strengths and weaknesses of each method more clearly. And ultimately, as you put your greater understanding into practice, you’ll become a far more effective ‘plotter’ because you’ll be making use of the best ideas from a variety of minds – as well as avoiding the drawbacks of each.
Refine Your Practice
This is what makes snowball reading such an effective study method: it has the potential to revolutionize the way you understand.
When we intentionally study a topic, we’re likely hoping to incorporate that learning into our lives. Whether it’s gaining a new skill, refining a system, or equipping ourselves to teach others, we don’t generally study something simply for the sake of strengthening our gray matter.
We study to do…to perform… to create.
This is where the power of snowball reading really shines. By reading multiple books (or blogs, or listening to podcasts, or watching documentaries), you won’t just increase your retention of the ideas contained therein. And you won’t just increase your ability to understand those ideas in a more robust way. You’ll equip yourself to put those ideas into practice.
In all that study, you’ll find practical ways that those ideas can be implemented. You’ll hear about the successes (and failures) of others who have gone before you (BTW, if you’ll read with a pen in hand, you’ll retain that wisdom even longer and be much more likely to put it into practice). And if you’ll begin practicing as you read, you’ll find yourself becoming better at an exponential rate.
Keep it Fresh
And when we make a habit out of studying a certain topic, it will keep that topic on our minds all of the time. This will allow us to connect the things we’re currently experiencing to the topic we’re studying in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Let me give you one example: If I’m studying the idea of ‘plot’ and what makes a good ‘plot’, I’ll be thinking about the different methods for plotting a story, the different elements of good plot, etc. more regularly.
This means that, when I’m watching The Mandalorian or the latest James Bond movie, I’ll notice things about it that I likely wouldn’t otherwise. Some good, others bad. Then, when I sit down at my desk, those ideas – the ideas from the books I’m reading, the movies and television shows I’m watching, the podcasts I’m listening to – will all be filtered into my writing.
And my writing will be the beneficiary of my snowball reading.