How do I choose which books to read?

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Harry S. Truman.


Reading has always been a hobby of mine.   One of my most memorable Christmases as a child was the one where my brother and I each were given 12 books by our parents.   I believe all of them were used books, but that made no difference at all to me.  The anticipation of being able to read as much as I wanted to read throughout the Christmas holidays overshadowed any other gifts that year.   For not only did I have 12 books to read; I had 24 for my brother’s books were fair game as well, once he had read them.  

Since then my reading habits have transitioned from an exclusively fiction diet to one that focuses more on the themes of missions, leadership, training and spiritual formation.   Reading has become part of my “job”, for evaluating and recommending books is a significant aspect of encouraging missionaries in their growth and development.  Furthermore, reading good books is the primary way that I stimulate my own personal growth and development.

I not only love to read books, I also love to accumulate them.   But my “job” does not make it easy to collect books in the traditional manner.  In each of our transitions (from Canada to the Philippines, then to Russia and then to Ukraine), fewer of my “paper books” have made the move with us.   So while my brother in Canada has grown his personal library to a phenomenal size through scouring used bookstores throughout the world, I have in recent years concentrated on developing a digital library.   My Bible software of choice, Logos, tells me that my biblical and theological library now has 3419 books in it, all indexed and searchable. Well over half of those were free resources that I downloaded from Logos over the past 5 years.   My e-book library management software, Calibre, tells me that I have an additional 1103 e-books on my computer, most of which are in Kindle format, and probably about 90% of those were obtained at no cost.

Needless to say, I have not read the vast majority of the books I own.    Frankly, the vast majority do not deserve to be read, at least not by me, given the other priorities of my calling and ministry.   Add to that the fact that new books are coming out every day.   Seth Godin claims that 15 million books were published in 2012.  

Obviously we need to read very selectively.   T. J. Addington, head of ReachGlobal says, “Maybe ten percent of what is on the market in the leadership arena is worth reading.”

How do we choose which books to read, and how do we find time to read the ones we choose to read?   Here are some suggestions:
  1. Read book reviews.   I greatly appreciate that Missio Nexus reviews and recommends three books each month in their Leader’s Edge Book Summary.   Furthermore, Missio Nexus sends me a weekly “Book Look“, a short review of some new book on a missions topic.   Often a book review will be enough to help me decide that I don’t need to read the book at all – or that I would like to look at it more closely.
  2. Keep a list of recommended books, but which you are not yet ready to read or even purchase. I use Amazon’s wish list for this purpose.   If you would like to take a look at it, you can find it here. The list is a place to park recommendations without spending any money until you have time to consider this book alongside all of your other priorities.
  3. Put together a reading plan each year of the good books you want to read during that year.   I use a web-based library program, Shelfari to keep track of the books I own (both paper books and e-books) and more importantly which books I have read or plan to read.   At the beginning of the year, I put together a reading list, after consulting my Individual Growth Plan and the Amazon wish list (see #1 above).   In Shelfari, I tag those books that I intentionally plan to read with a unique tag (e.g kg2013).   Then I set a reading goal in Shelfari to read, say, 15 books with the tag kg2013 in 2013.   As long as I remember to record the books I have finished reading on Shelfari.com, the website will automatically tell me how far along I am on reaching my reading goal.   So far this year, I have read 16 books, 10 of which are part of my reading goal.  You can see a picture of my Shelfari reading plan at this link.
  4. Adjust your plan.   I do not reduce the number of books I plan to read, but I will often change the books on the list if I find a better book on that particular topic during the course of the year.  Maybe my boss asks me to read a particular book that was not on my original list.   Price is also a consideration, so if I find a comparable book for free (or I can borrow it for free), I may choose to read the alternative instead.
  5. Read while doing something else.    Our church is an hour away by subway, and I have read many books on that commute.   This winter, I listened to the entire book, “What is the Mission of the Church?” while running on the treadmill at the local gym.   It took a few weeks to get through all 10 chapters.   The book had been highly recommended by others, and when it became available as a free download of the month at Christian Audio, I saw my opportunity to “read” it.   Actually, I had been given a paper copy, but never took the time to read it until I had a chance to do so while doing something else.
  6. Don’t read every word.  I am indebted to my good friend and coach, Dr. Dave Wood for pointing me to Dr. Bobby Clinton’s helpful booklet, Reading on the Run.   On the website advertising Clinton’s books, we read, 

“This booklet introduces an approach for effective reading, selectively, for leadership information. Leaders have much more material these days to read than ever before. They must learn better reading techniques (not speed reading) in order to learn to read the plethora of leadership material.  They can do this, by focusing on what they need to learn from it and not reading every word of it.The method involves a set of quasi-selective reading approaches along a continuum from a lesser involvement to an in-depth involvement: scan, browse, ransack, pre-read, read, and study. Guidelines and Worksheets help the reader focus on findings from each type of read. This reading technique is a wonderful skill for older leaders to instill in emerging younger leaders.”

Front CoverDr. Clinton says a reader must decide where to place each book on a reading continuum that will determine how thoroughly the book will be read or scanned. One does not have to read every word in order to benefit from it. Depending on the value and newness of the content, different books should be read  at different levels.
Clinton’s different levels of reading:
  1. Scan – overview of contents
  2. Ransack – new ideas, specific ideas
  3. Browse – some in-depth contextual analysis
  4. Pre-Read – determine thematic intent, structural intent
  5. In-Depth Read – analysis of thematic content, analysis of structural intent
  6. Study – repeated work in the book, comparative analysis with other books

Each level assumes the book has been read at the previous level and a decision was made to read the book at the next level as well.

At 52 pages, Reading on the Run is an easy read, filled with a number of worksheets and examples.   The PDF version only costs $4.00 and is well worth the investment.  For myself, I have printed out several pages as a reference for when I read books in the future.
Well, those are some suggestions for selecting which books to read.  What would you add to my list?  How do you decide which books to read?

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