How I Decide What to Read

By Roscoe Lilly

Every year when I publish “My Top 10 Book Reads” for the year, I get lots of requests for how I pick which books to read. So I thought I would shed a little light on my process to help you put together your reading list for the year. Every book I read gets my time because it passed through one of these five filters.

1. Yearly Categories

Someone once said, “We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught.” If you’ve been reading for years, most of the books you’ll encounter aren’t going to be full of stuff you’ve never heard, but they do remind you of core ideas and practices that deserve your attention. This is the idea behind yearly categories.

Yearly categories are a good way for you to sharpen your axe. After spending the year clearing new paths—or widening current ones—you have to sharpen your axe.

I have a few categories that I always want to stay sharp in and focused on. Every year I try to read a book from these categories:

MARRIAGE. If you are married, it’s the most important relationship you have. You have to keep it strong. Great marriages don’t just happen or come naturally. They require work, commitment and focus. Reading isn’t the only thing necessary to have a good marriage, but it helps, especially through each changing season. Reading a marriage book will send a strong message to your spouse that you value the relationship and want to be better.

MONEY. You won’t hear a single advertisement telling you to wait or buy it next year. Our entire economy is based on consuming things (including books). It takes discipline and focus to save, make wise investment choices, and prepare for retirement.

We spent a lot of time and effort in college learning how to make money, but no one taught us what to do with it after we made it. Do you remember taking a personal finance class? Mine was an elective.

When you think about how much of your life revolves around making, spending, saving, and investing money, it only makes sense you should read about it each year to fight off the wrong voices and stay focused on your goals.

LEADERSHIP. God has blessed me with an incredible group of people to lead. Every year I feel a deeper sense of responsibility for them and to them. I have so far to go to be a great leader. People are counting on me and you to make wise choices because our decisions affect them.

PRAYER. You may be surprised to see that as a yearly category, even though I’m a pastor, it doesn’t always come naturally. I wake up ready to attack the day. Reading about prayer helps keep it a part of my daily rhythm. If I’m not careful, prayer can become just a response to challenging circumstances.

2. My Core Responsibilities

This particular filter relates to things that only I can do. What are the responsibilities you have at work and at home that are core to your role(s)?

Part of my core responsibilities are speaking and being a father. I’m responsible for most of the public presentations at our church. I want to grow in that area so I try to read a communication book every year.

I’m also a father. It’s a core responsibility. No one else can be a father to my children. I’m the only one they’ve got. They are a gift from God and they deserve to have a father who is growing and learning. You only get one shot at it. Our shot comes while we are juggling so many other things. We can’t afford to drop this core responsibility.

I have other core responsibilities, but you get the idea. What are your core responsibilities? When was the last time you read a book in your core area?

3. Research

Because one of my core responsibilities is delivering a weekly presentation to very smart people, I can’t wing it. Every October, I plan out the themes for the coming year. Having the series planned out a year in advance gives me time to do the research necessary on topics I might not be as familiar with or topics that need to have fresh content.

My research category keeps me motivated because I’m on the clock for when I’ll have to present.

I’ll also save a few slots in this category if I have a particular theology question that I would like to do a deeper dive on.

4. Growth Areas

As adults we learn on a need-to-know basis. You’ve probably never watched a YouTube video on how to change your brakes … unless you need new brakes and don’t have the money for someone else to change them. Then you binge watch people changing brakes. You’ll even watch it in slow motion soaking in every frame. Why? You have a very real need to know.

Each year you’ll find your needs will change. One year for your personal life, your real need might be to read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and later it’s The Tech-Wise Family. Or professionally you’re reading about When Not to Build and the next, it’s The Ideal Team Player.

Anytime you’re stuck you should ask, “Whom do I know that can help me?” and “What can I read?” I can point to specific books on each one of my reading lists that helped me get unstuck and grow.

If you feel stuck in an area or you’re facing some new decisions, what can you put on your reading list?

5. Trusted Recommendations

People are always recommending books to me, but just because a book is recommended to me doesn’t mean I have to read it. If it is someone who has recommended solid books to me in the past then I’ll put it in on my list. If it’s someone I don’t know that well, I’ll make a mental note, but I’ll wait and see if other people I trust recommend it. When you start hearing multiple people recommend a book, there’s a good chance it will be a winner.

Most of us gravitate to a particular genre or subject matter and trusted recommendations will put more diversity in your reading.

Network with other readers. Ask them what they’ve loved recently. The benefit of tapping into other people’s lists is you also get to tap into their network of trusted recommendations. By only reading their top recommendations, you’re guaranteed a great book.

Don’t worry if someone’s top 10 list doesn’t resonate with you. You’ll know they’re not part of your filter. One person I know publishes a list and when I’ve read his top picks, I’m always left wondering what I missed. I’m guessing it was because his “growth areas” filter was different than mine. Another person I know doesn’t publish his list, but his top books are always spot on. My point is that it will take some time and experimentation for you to find those you trust to give you recommendations.

Even if someone isn’t part of your trusted-recommendations filter yet, listen for how they recommend a book to you. One book I read last year was described to me this way: “I was really discouraged and going through a tough time. I called up a friend and he overnighted me this book. I cried the entire way through it.” That’s quite an endorsement! I ended up reading that book three times last year!

Your trusted-recommendations filter will also help you fill other categories above. If they happened to highly recommend a marriage book or finance book, then put it in your queue.

Final Thoughts

I would encourage you to ignore most of the new releases, unless it’s an author you love. Let someone else be the guinea pig. You have a lot to do, and there are too many winners out there for you to spend your precious time on something unknown.

The reality in the publishing world is not that the best ideas and best authors get published; it’s those who have the biggest platforms and audience that get published. The publishers are trying to make money, not perform a service to humanity. (Remember your college professor’s book you were required to purchase? He had a large captive market.)

You want to read the best ideas and the best authors. Those types of books tend to have staying power. It’s one of the reasons you can never go wrong with the classics.

I can’t wait to see all of the things God does through you this year because you took the time to read and become all God intended you to be.

Roscoe Lilly serves as Lead Pastor of NorthStar Church in Albany, New York. This article first appeared on his website,  Follow Roscoe on Twitter @RoscoeLilly

If you are interested in partnering with NorthStar Church or planting in the Albany, NY area, contact Roscoe at