How to Choose Books to Read

A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of books that are essential for any home library. Since then friends have asked me how I decide on which books to read. Of course, this question reveals the part of me that can be very mechanical and organized so no judgment! It actually saves time and allows me to spend it on other things that are more meaningful – relationships, health, writing, actually reading, and so on. With that said, please forgive the nerdiness of my process. It does serve as a very quick way for me to decide if I want to read a book or not and so far it hasn’t let me down. After all, I want to spend my time reading good books; not summaries of books to choose the next one or, worse, starting a book only to stop reading it 50 pages in because it wasn’t any good.

Alright, now that I’ve set it up, here are the questions I go through quickly before a book makes it onto my reading list. I can’t wait to see what questions I get, the holes you may poke in my approach, or the digital eye-rolls I imagine some of you will have as you read on!

What is going on in my life currently? What am I interested in right now?

It’s simple, choose books that you are more likely to learn from and put into action instead of forcing yourself to read on a topic that you may not enjoy. The one small caveat to this would be fiction. I’m not saying there are no lessons to learn from fiction but I often use them intentionally to give myself time to reflect and let the other books I’ve read have time to sink in.

What book is everyone else reading? Read something else.

If you read what others read you will think what others think. Think differently. In a speech to students, Francis Ford Coppola told the audience, “Remember one thing, the things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you get a lifetime achievement award for later on.” People who accomplish greatness, lead change or have an impact in ways that outlast their lives thought differently than others even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. To think differently you must read differently. The easiest way to do this? I don’t read anything that is currently on a bestsellers list.

  1. Amazon’s Most Read/Most Sold
  2. Barnes & Noble’s Best Sellers
  3. Amazon’s New York Times Best Seller Lists
  4. The New York Times Best Seller Lists
  5. Amazon Best Sellers
  6. Publisher’s Weekly Best Seller Lists
  7. Indiebound’s Best Seller Lists

Is this book a foundational classic in its field of study or interest?

Classics are the books that set the standard for knowledge in a certain subject. A lot of the books written today are based on books written years ago. Unfortunately, too often today’s best-sellers are just repackaging the same information and ideas from the classics – and sometimes tacking on a small detail or new idea. This is one of the reasons I avoid popular books. I have decided that if a book is that good, the information in it will prove the test of time and still be applicable later on when I get to it. One of the best ways I keep up with foundational classics is by using Tom Butler-Bowdon’s 50 Classics Series. It is not exhaustive but it points you in the right direction!

Will this knowledge last at least for the rest of my life?

There are plenty of books out there to read. Matter of fact you could only read the classics that were written before you were born and never run out of material to learn from. If you’re going to read a book make sure the knowledge gained from it will still apply for as long as you are alive. There is a general philosophy out there that some use and it feels like it works well here – something will continue to be true for as long as it has already been true. If the knowledge in a book has been accepted for 50 years it is likely it will last for at least another 50 years. Here’s how I use this rule when adding books to my immediate reading list – (I’ll add here that I do still add books that were written recently, and sometimes read them sooner rather than later, but I have other questions for handling that!)

Current Year – (Avg. Expected Life Span – Current Age) = Read Books Written Before This Year

2021 – (93-36) = 1964

As you get older you can read newer books! Also, here’s how you might apply it to other types of media, not just books.

  • Will the information in this podcast matter in _______ months?
  • Will the information in this blog matter in ________ weeks?
  • Will this documentary, tv show, or movie matter in ________ years?

If the book is not considered a foundational classic in its field of study and doesn’t meet the criteria above, what book with an opposing viewpoint will you read next?

This is the way I get around some of my earlier questions! If I really want to read a book that is not yet considered a classic in its field or there is a chance the information in the book may not last my lifetime (see the point above), then I just have to commit to immediately reading another book on the same topic with an opposing viewpoint from my list. Or sometimes it isn’t on my list, though usually, I can find something since I like to read on a variety of topics and from a variety of perspectives.

Is the author smarter than you are?

This sounds awful and I hate mentioning it publicly! To be clear, I believe we can learn something from anyone. But we are also responsible for our time and if we are going to spend time reading a book then we should want to know the person is more of an expert on the topic than we are. If we are talking about music, psychology, and/or theology then I’m probably looking for someone to have a doctorate or significantly more experience than I do. You should do the same. Do they have significantly more experience in the topic they are writing about than you do? What qualifies them to teach you on a specific topic?

Does the book have at least a 75% positive rating (4 out of 5 or 7.5 out of 10 stars)?

There are a lot of books out there. And others have already read them. If a book has made it this far through your questioning then you can use others’ ratings of the book to eliminate books that are just average at best. Focus on books that are highly rated. Sometimes it means you’ll skip a book, but in my experience when I read a book that didn’t have good ratings, I found that even if it was well written and entertaining I could have read a handful of pages and gotten the point. I spent way too much time reading it for the amount of information I gained. This is where I would say to you that other peoples’ opinions actually matter!

Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50

And just in case you still end up reading a book that you just aren’t enjoying or can’t get interested in. After reading 50 pages of a book, if you aren’t enjoying it stop reading it. At age 51, you subtract your age from 100 and only have to read that many pages before giving up. At 100, you can judge a book by its cover!

I used these rules when building my list of Essential Books for Every Home Library. I use it when making my annual list of books to read each year. And I use it when I finish one book and move on to another. I hope you find it as useful as I have!

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