When I graduated high school, I’d not read a single book. If I didn’t graduate last in my class, I was certainly close. In fact, one teacher protested I shouldn’t graduate at all, and it was only a coup from counselors that got me out of high school.
It wasn’t until I attended a rather academic camp in Colorado that I started reading. The camp aimed to prepare kids for college, and as such emphasized reading books, lots and lots of books. They must have said a thousand times that readers are leaders. I believed them. I started reading that summer (I was probably 18) and I kept reading, book after book for the next fifteen years. These days, I’m embarrassed to say, I read less than I have since then. I may tackle thirty books each year. I read blogs and articles on the internet, and I watch too much television. I write some sort of article or blog entry almost every day, which is a terrific discipline for a writer, but I’ve slacked off on reading.
That said, though, if it’s true leaders are readers, than it’s easier than ever to be a leader. In fact, if you’ll commit to reading a single book, you’ll be, approximately, in the top 50% of all Americans. I’m not kidding. If you’ll read just one more book before you die, you’ll leave half the people around you in the dust.
According to Para Publishing, 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. And 42% of college graduates follow suit. 70% of U.S. adults have not stepped into a bookstore in the last 7 years and 80% of American families did not purchase or read a book last year.
About the time I started reading, I bought a book of poems for a friend. The book was Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson. But I never gave the book to my friend. I began to read Emily’s letters and found her economy of words magical. I couldn’t understand how anybody could say so much with so few words. What I was experiencing as I read the book was the gap in literacy from her life in Amherst to mine in Texas nearly one-hundred years later. Noah Webster would frequent the Dickinson home, and he would sit in the parlor talking to her father about a new project he was writing, a list of words and definitions that would later become Webster’s Dictionary. She read novels rather than watch movies. She read short stories rather than watch television. And at the tender age of thirteen, her letters to her brother Austin were mesmerizing in their descriptions and fluidity.
I memorized a few of Emily’s poems, and I found my own writing improved the more I tumbled her words around in my head. From Emily I memorized Rudyard Kipling and then Robert Herrick (To the Virgins to Make Much of Time!) and Longfellow and Byron’s She Walks in Beauty. I started reading Shakespeare, even though I didn’t understand him. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand him, because I could understand parts, and the parts were worth the reading of the whole. To this day, when young writers ask me for advice, I tell them to memorize poems. I tell them to never let me encounter them again unless they have an index card in their pocket with a few lines written on it that they are committing to memory.
But my point is this: If you want to be a person of influence, or if you want to lead, or for that matter if you want to succeed, start reading. These days, you have less competition than your parents had, or their parents for that matter. If you read as few as fifty books, you’ll be considered a genius. Subscribe to the Economist and read a handful of articles each week and your friends will wonder when you intend to run for congress.
Turn off your television and read two books a week next year and you’ll be counseling the Pope or the President. It’s true what I learned all those years ago: Readers are leaders.