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Q&A: How do you choose what books you read?

Nicole asked on my 10 Weekly Goals Post:

Crystal, how do you decide which books to read next? I love your book choices, and am wondering how you make your selections? Is there a webpage you visit, is it through friends’ recommendations, or do you have a book list you follow? -Nicole

Well, truth be told, there’s no scientific reason behind the books I choose to read and the order I read them. I did make a booklist at the beginning of 2011 with 24 books I planned to read this year. I planned this list from books I already owned and had been wanting to read for some time.

The two books per month I’m supposed to read from this booklist are my first reading priorities each month and I try to not allow myself to read much else until I’ve finished (or almost finished!) these. However, since I often read at least five or six books per month, I specifically only planned two books per month so that I could have room to read quite a few other books throughout the year.

Always Be On the Lookout For Good Book Recommendations

Most of the rest of the books I chose based upon suggestions from friends (I’m constantly asking my local friends, “What are you reading right now?” I get lots of great ideas this way!) and from the blogs I read (Catherine from A Spirited Mind posts many great reviews and I’ve found quite a few excellent books based upon her suggestions.) I also occasionally find books I’m interested in on Pinterest or from an email or comment from a reader. Since I love to read, I’ve learned that just keeping my eyes and ears open for good book recommendations pretty much guarantees I have an endless supply of good book ideas.

Keep a Running List

As soon as I find a book I’m interested in reading, I write it down. And, at the next available opportunity (usually that same day), I’ll check out the reviews on Amazon. While these are not always unbiased (some authors get a bunch of their friends to write glowing book reviews for them), you can get a good sense in skimming the reviews as to whether the book is worth reading.

If I’m still interested after reading the reviews and description on Amazon, I check to see if our library has the book. Most of the time, it does, so I go ahead and place a hold on it. Since I recently spent $25 to get a Gold Card membership, I can request unlimited holds–something that comes in very handy at the rate we check out books at our house.

The thing I love about checking out books from the library is that I don’t feel any sort of obligation to have to read the book. If I get it and start skimming through it and realize it’s not what I thought it was, I can just return it to the library, without any guilt. I’d rather spend my time reading high-quality books that I’m going to enjoy and benefit from, instead of feeling obligated to read a mediocre book because I paid for it.

In the cases where our library doesn’t have the book, I’ll check PaperBackSwap to see if it’s available there. If not, and it’s a book I really want, I add it to my Amazon wishlist and then wait for when we have some extra credit from Swagbucks to use toward buying the book.

As books come in from PaperbackSwap, from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, someone sends me a book (companies often send me books in hopes I’ll read and recommend them on my blog), I keep them on a bookshelf in our schoolroom that is just for books I’ve yet to read. As I finish one book, I choose another from this bookshelf to read. When library books I’ve put on hold come in, I make those higher priority since I have to return them in a timely manner (it’s not saving money to check books out from the library if you end up having to pay late fines repeatedly!).

(Pages of notes I took from Organized Simplicity)

The 3-Books-At-A-Time Rule

I try to always have three books going: one that is an easy, highly-interesting read; one that is somewhat business related (about marketing, blogging, writing, growing a business, being a leader, personal finance, etc.); and one that is encouraging and building me up spiritually. I don’t always follow this formula exactly, but that’s what I aim for when choosing what book I’ll read next.

Another thing I’ve implemented this year is to be consistent in finishing books before starting new ones. I used to be the queen of starting books, but was really, really awful about actually finishing a book. I found this to be quite unproductive, since it starts becoming overwhelming and crazy to try to process what you’re reading if you’re reading snippets of 20 different books.

So in 2011, I’ve made it a point to only have three books going at once–in addition to my current devotional book and my current “running” book (I have a spiritually-deep book by the treadmill that I read a few pages out of while I’m doing my pre-run walking warm-up. I’ve been reading really thought-provoking books during this time as I’ve found it then gives me a lot to think about and mull over while running.) Setting a specific boundary on my book-reading has helped me to actually finish many, many more books than I usually do–and I feel like I’ve gleaned a lot more by concentrating and focusing on reading fewer books at a time.

For those who are interested, you can see the books I’ve read so far in 2011 here. You can also read reviews of many of them here. (I’m behind on writing book reviews, but I am hoping to get caught up sometime in the next week!)

photo credit

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68 Comments

  • Angie D says:

    Do you know about or have used the InterLibrary Loans?

    • Crystal says:

      No, I haven’t. Have you? If so, I need to pick your brain. 🙂 My Wendell Berry book came today, by the way. 🙂

      • Kayla says:

        I use InterLibrary Loan all the time, because I’m a college student at a secular campus and most of the books I want to read are nowhere near the library bookshelves. Some libraries charge for the service (from what I’ve heard), but here it’s included in the tuition fees. If the campus library doesn’t have the book (or dvd, etc) I’m interested in, I file an ILL request and they send the request into the World Catalog, trying to locate the closest library that has a copy of it. Once they locate it, they request the copy from that library and then it’s sent here. They e-mail me a notification once it’s arrived. In fact, I have Adopt without Debt by Julie Gumm waiting for me at the library right now!
        This has been a huge money saver for me, because otherwise I probably would’ve purchased most of the books I’ve borrowed!

      • Angie D says:

        You used to have to do it at the branches, but you can do it online now. (yay!) Basically, you can reserve 3 at a time and it searches libraries everywhere. There is no charge. Really handy for the MFW kids’ book lists too. I can give you more details if you can’t find it on the website. There is hardly ever a book I can’t find now!

  • Another frugal source of good books is a used book store. Our Half Price Books gives cash for magazines (I sign up for all the free subscriptions I see on Money Saving Mom!) and I use that to buy used books from my list. I find great deals in their clearance section.

    Thanks for the link, Crystal! 🙂

    • Kayla says:

      That is a fantastic idea! I haven’t been to our Half Price Books, but I will definitely be looking into it now.

    • Wendy says:

      I love our used bookstore here in town. All books are $1 and if you bring a book to trade in, they’ll give you $.50 credit. You never know what you’ll find and it’s fun to go in and look around.

  • I joined goodreads.com. A lot of my friends and family are on there, so I can see what they’re reading—and what they think about the books I’m thinking about reading. It’s like having them all there to make recommendations all the time. It helps me keep track of the books I want to read (and what I’ve read). My reading satisfaction has gone way up since I joined! I can’t recommend it enough.

    • Rachel says:

      I love goodreads.com

      It lets me see what my friends are reading (even those far away) and includes suggestions based on what others with similar taste have enjoyed.

      • Emily says:

        I love it too. I can keep track of where I heard about a book (friend, newspaper) and leave other notes for myself. I’ve built up quite a big list but have found some great books this way and gotten more organized about which books I want to read. Handier than the Excel spreadsheet I’ve used at times in the past because I can easily check out the author’s other books. They also just started a recommendation service based on your prior ratings, but I haven’t tried it yet.

    • Ditto about goodreads! I have the app on my phone now, too. So quick and easy to look up books, read reviews, and add books to my lists while I’m out and about. I rarely refer to Amazon for books anymore.

      • Aimee says:

        I had no idea they had an app too! That’s fantastic 🙂 I use it to keep track of what to read as well. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Sarah says:

      I had never heard of this… I can’t wait to check it out!

  • jana says:

    As a follow-up to this question…how do you find “long” books that are age appropriate for kids? Mine is currently 2.5 and ready for chapter-type books.

    • I started my (then) 2.5 and 3 year old boys on “The Little Prince” as their first chapter book – it was PERFECT as it was imaginative, had lots of characters for different voices and pictures scattered throughout.

      Since then we’ve moved through many chapter books, mostly ones my husband and I remember from our childhood that I have found at a thrift store – Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (edited for “bad” words), Winnie the Pooh, Sign of the Beaver, Paddle to the Sea (currently re-reading as our school “curriculum”), Old Yeller, Dr. Doolittle, etc.

      We have just branched out into biographies with them and are almost done with David Livingstons story and, at 3 and 4, they have both loved it.

      Like Crystal I keep a shelf of “unread children’s chapter books” in our school room so we can immediately move onto the next chapter book.

    • Gina says:

      http://www.classical-homeschooling.org/celoop/1000.html Is an excellent resource for any age. The site is broken down by age or grade levels and don’t let the homeschooling throw you..it is great for homeschooler or non-homeschooler alike.

    • Amy says:

      I found the Read Along Handbook by Jim Trelease to be very insightful. There were lots of gems for me to understand about raising “readers” and at the end there is a section that recommends age appropriate books. I checked it out from the library but it was one that was so useful I will most likely purchase it.

  • Erin says:

    I love Goodreads!

  • Jess says:

    Loved this post. I had been wondering about your book choices, too. I am also very interested in how you choose read aloud chapter books for your children…would love to see a post on that!
    Thanks!
    Jess

  • Conni says:

    The Great Books – http://www.thegreatbooks.com – is another resource for reading lists. It is designed for 9th – 12th grade reading, but is great for all ages. Click on “Ancient”, etc. for the lists.

  • Gina says:

    Jana,
    A great resource for reading material of any age from K-12 (including you!) is this online resource, http://www.classical-homeschooling.org/celoop/1000.html
    Even if you are not a homeschooler, the book list is worth printing out. It is broken down by grade levels to help you find a good fit for your reader.

  • Christina says:

    I use the kindle app for my ipad and down load a bunch of the free ones with 4 or more stars (mainly christian romance or mystery) and if it’s a good one I make note of it because they usually put the free ones on there to reel you into buying the series. Then I check our local used book store and the library for the rest of the series so I have yet to run out of books to read or purchase a book on line!! If there’s a popular book that has like 24 holds on 2 copies at the library I put a line out on my Face Book page asking if anyone has it available to loan.

  • Erin says:

    Woo libraries! Even if your library doesn’t own the book, they should be able to order it through InterLibrary Loan, if your library is connected to a network of others, which public libraries often are.

  • I also like to browse through the “you might also like” section on Amazon for new authors. It’s generally pretty spot on since I purchase so many ebooks through Amazon!

  • Chelsea says:

    I love the free books that you post from Amazon. It’s so much easier to read while nursing that way! I also enjoy getting books at garage sales. I got a great book the other day for 25 cents.

  • Florence says:

    Crystal, the next time you are making changes to your website design, you might consider adding a Good Books tab at the top.

  • Leslie in VA says:

    I am practically hyperventilating trying to type fast enough to tell you all about Goodreads. LOVE IT! We are huge readers (family of 9) and I have been keeping track of our family reads for a few years. It is a wonderful way to get suggestions from other like minded folks of books that they like and did not like, etc. Whenever I hear about a book that sounds appealing, I put it on my to be read shelf and start hunting for it on paperbackswap or my library. It is rare that I buy books these days out of necessity. I am one of those picky moms that do not think that as long as they are reading, it is fine. I think that we should spend our time reading things that reflect the good, the true and the beautiful. So many times, I have wasted precious reading time on a book that I did not want to read! No more. If you are interested in what we are reading , you can look for me applying my first name which is public to our last name which is on my email.

    Enjoy!

  • Melissa says:

    I have to echo the recommendations on Goodreads; I love it! It’s a little addicting to set up your lists on there.

  • Jana – The reading lists at http://www.hedgehogbooks.com are a good place to start. The lists aren’t particularly current as the site is not being actively maintained these days (sadly, people visited the site in droves to find good choices for their children, but then went and bought them elsewhere, so Hedgehog had to shutter as a bookselling site) but are created by teachers who understand that reading age and chronological age are different things – so you’ll find safe choices for younger readers in the older grade level reading lists. Most libraries also have reading lists that can be a great starting point for inspiration.

  • Melissa says:

    I’m in love with http://www.goodreads.com It is a place to find books in genre’s you like, read recommendations and keep a list of all books you want to read. They also have a bookswap so for shipping, you can request a book. If you want you can also list your books to swap and earn free books. I also just won one of their new book giveaways and got a book on my wishlist from the publisher to read for FREE!

  • Kim says:

    I had been wondering the same question – so thanks for the answer. One of my goals for this year was not only to read more, but to finish some books I have started over the last several years and never finished. Happy to say that I actually accomplished that.

    Another question – when you take notes on the books you read, where and how do organize them and file them so that you can find them when you want them?

    • Shelli Vitale says:

      Kim,
      I often take notes on books, too. I keep mine in Microsoft One Note. It’s literally a notebook program designed for students & business people. You can maintain an unlimited number of notebooks. Each notebook has unlimited sections, and each section has unlimited pages. I keep all my book notes in one notebook, organized alphabetically (sections), then by title (pages). You can see a demo of the program on Microsoft’s website, here: http://office.microsoft.com/en-ca/onenote-help/demo-what-is-onenote-HA010168634.aspx

    • Crystal says:

      Well, honestly, I rarely take notes from books unless it’s a book I really love and am planning use in an article or writing project. Yes, sorry to disappoint you! 🙂

  • Shelli Vitale says:

    You might also check out Bookins.com. You list books you already own, and create a wish list. You’ll receive requests for other members for your books. You print a free shipping label and send the book. Once it’s delivered you earn points that are used to buy books on your wish list. You only pay shipping (flat $4.49) on each book when it’s shipped and it’s free to be a member. I’ve been a member for several years and have been able to get some expensive books and some older books that are out of print (or hard to find at a reasonable price), and I only had to pay shipping.

  • Jenn says:

    Hey Crystal,

    My question is HOW do you have the time to read on top of carving out time for God, your marriage and children, homeschooling, blogging and everything else? I love to read also, but I’m caring for my five-month old son while my husband is away for the military. Any free time I do have is devoted to cleaning, errands, and reading / studying the Bible, and sleeping. Just curious….

    Jenn

  • Nicole says:

    Thanks for sharing! I keep a big list via Amazon on my blog (See sub page under Love page) that shares with others what I am reading, what I recommend and what’s on my list for the future! I may not always buy it from Amazon but it helps me keep things organized.

  • Christy says:

    Another way to get ideas for book is by subscribing to regular newsletters from book companies such as Simon & Schuster or Random House. There are book reviews and sometimes even contests to win free books! Thanks for the great article!

  • Nicole says:

    Thank you, Crystal, for taking the time to answer my question and give us a peek into your “method.” 🙂

    I especially appreciated your suggestion of reading a very deep book right before you run, to think over during the workout. Great stuff!! 🙂

  • Nancy says:

    I have 3 books going at once too! I just saw the play The Sound of Music, which inspire me to read the book (that’s my easy, light reading), I’m reading The China Study because I’m really into nutrition and health, and I’m a vegetarian, and then the book Heaven (spiritual). (I teach Sunday School so am always researching my next lesson.) I also usually have a business/marketing type book going too.
    Sometimes you’re just in the mood for one or the other. Wish I had more time to readt though!!

  • Nancy says:

    PS I probably have titles for over 100 books written down on 3 pieces of paper that I’ve heard about and want to read. Do you think I’ll live long enough? 🙂

  • Kim says:

    Ask a Librarian. We love to help! BTW, I don’t know how I lived before goodreads.com. Keeps track of you Currently Reading, To Read and Read lists with a couple clicks. They also allow you to create your own “shelves” to organize the books the way it makes sense to you!

    • Yay for librarians! I’m in library school right now. Besides Goodreads, I also love worldcat.com. You can make an account and lists there. It has Goodreads reviews connected to entries, but it’s great to see what local libraries have the book you are looking for–something that can be helpful if you have multiple library systems nearby, are traveling to see family and want to get books at that location, etc.

  • Rachel says:

    Does anyone have any good chapter book suggestions for girls 2 and 4? I would love a Christian based series but any suggestions would be great.
    Thanks

    • Jessica says:

      My children (ds-6, ds-4 and dd-2) have all been loving the Trailblazer Books by Dave and Neta Jackson. We just finished one on David Livingstone. Great way for children to learn about important missionaries and men and women of the faith that have risked their lives to spread the Gospel. Highly recommend.

    • These may be a little old for your girls, but maybe reading them to them or keeping in mind for the future… I loved the Mandie Mysteries and Elizabeth Gail books. Both are series and are very enjoyable.

  • Stacy says:

    My most recent trick when I’m at another library or Barnes and Noble is to take a cell phone picture of the cover of the book and check on it when I get home. I do what you do- check Amazon for reviews, put it on my “to read” list on my library website or add to my Amazon wish list.

  • Penny T. says:

    I just wanted to mention that I’ve found some good deals (better prices than Amazon) on betterworldbooks.com. I also like the fact that they donate a book for every book bought and donate money for literacy programs, libraries, etc. If I have to purchase a book (usually health/nutrition ones I like to have to keep), I check there. They run sales every once in awhile, too, and their shipping is always included in the price you see on their website (makes it easy and nice if you only want to buy one book). I’m going to look into the inter-library loan because I did not know about that and many of my health books I rarely find at my local library.

  • Kristine says:

    I have a Nook, and I download free public-domain books from Project Gutenberg and the free books that Barnes & Noble gives away. The Vessel Project site also lists free Christian books for Nook and Kindle. Most of the books on my reading list are books that I got for free. I can’t read multiple books at the same time, though; I’m not a multitasker in any area of my life. 🙂

  • Veronica says:

    Our library has something called Wowbrary on their site. It lists some of the new books that the library just acquired, along with descriptions. The library also keeps an online list of the books that have been added to their collections for the month. Along with that, I use goodreads, Amazon (and the free kindle books), the New York Times Book Review online, and the local paper book reviews. I keep a running list of books I want to read in a notebook, which I also use to keep track of the books I’ve read. Kindle just partnered with Overdrive, and now you can borrow library ebooks on the library website, too. That just started yesterday, and I’ve already borrowed a couple of books. You can keep them for 2 weeks. I rarely buy books nowadays – except occasionally on the Kindle.

  • Sarah says:

    I still can’t get over how you have so many books going at once. I’m definitely a one-or-two-at-a-time person. Usually one fiction (lately I’m trying to switch between fiction and non-fiction, though. I’m going to be 30 next week; it’s probably about time to expand my horizons) and sometimes a book related to a Bible study. And the Bible, of course.

  • Koree says:

    I always check to see what the New York Times website has to say. They list the top sellers by category and also have lots of book reviews:

    http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/index.html

  • Amy says:

    I google the NY Times bestsellers list from previous years, then I go to paperback swap and put it on my wish list. This is how I got the book THE HELP and it is an excellent book to read!

  • Ami says:

    Crystal – I love your posts on reading and book reviews!

    Many readers may find that they don’t need a special library membership to get many holds and have the library regularly order books for them. I live in a county with a well endowed library. The librarians know me because we check out so many books, and they are incredibly kind about significantly reducing any late fees I accrue. They will also override the book limit so I can check out as many books as I want, and they let me renew books for as long as I want, unless there is a hold on one. You can requests holds on-line and the librarians will collect them all and hold them at the desk! I can request new books on-line and they will buy them all, with a wait time of about a month. One librarian told me they appreciate book requests because it makes their collection more diverse. I recieve notices by e-mail 3 days before due dates, so I can manage all my books well. Also, we can use the library in any county we border, including the big city where my husband works. This big city has several library branches, but if I request books on my computer (up to 20 at a time, I think) they will have them all delivered to my preferred branch within a day or two.

    I just wanted to let poeple know about library services because they are so extensive!

  • Christi says:

    Also ask for book suggestions at your library. Public libraries should offer this service. Trained librarians can take your reading preferences and use different tools to suggest other books you might enjoy.

  • MC says:

    I remember awhile back you said you were working on your photography skills. Not sure what kind of camera you have, but I’m currently reading Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. It’s in very simple English, super easy to understand as long as you play with your camera while you read it (if you haven’t explored the scary non-auto settings already). It’s a nice read and the picture examples in the book are great.

    Anyway, it’s intended for DSLR cameras. It breaks down which settings do what to your pics, how to think about what settings you *want* and then getting the right exposures for the light you’re in… Not the cheapest book out there (about $15-20 on Amazon, listed as 25.99 on the back of the book), but it’s a heck of an investment. All of my photographer friends have recommended it for new people, and even for experienced folks who might want a refresher.

    And this relates to the post because it’s about books 😀

    Happy picture taking!

    • Crystal says:

      I don’t have a DSLR (just a nicer point and shoot camera that I got a few years ago), do you think the book would still be helpful?

      • MC says:

        Hmmm, it will probably make you want a DSLR! 😀

        The cover says “how to shoot great photographs with any camera”… But I’d mainly recommend it if your camera has a manual mode. It *does* go over more than just settings – for instance types of lighting/what to look for.
        There are some free videos here by the same guy: http://www.ppsop.com/unexvid.aspx

        I’d watch those first and decide if you want much more information from the book. (Hopefully that link works.)

  • Gabriela says:

    Hey Crystal, have you read “The Millionaire Real Estate Investor”? I think you would really enjoy it, especially since I know you and your husband are looking into invest in real estate (wise move, by the way!) This book is a great read – written by Gary Keller, founder of Keller Williams, the second largest real estate company in the U.S. He compiled a lot of great information and interviewed over 100 successful real estate investors. I purchased my first investment property last year and hope to do more in the future. This book has really helped me and motivated me in my future real estate goals.

  • Audrey says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one with a problem finishing books! I LOVE reading, and I have a problem with starting 10 books and not finishing any of them. I have also implemented a rule this year that I can’t have more than 3 books going at a time, including my devotional and Bible study books. It’s been a challenge, but I’m actually able to finish books this way! Right now I have A Woman After God’s Own Heart, Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering (I have a baby due in 3 weeks and I love reading birth books while I’m pregnant), and a couple’s devotional that I can’t remember the name of all going. The devotional will be on the list for a while, so I’m working on finishing the other two before the baby gets here and then I have a whole separate reading list for my nursing down-time! But I’m sticking with my 3-at-a-time rule!

  • Beth Anne says:

    Thanks for posting this again today, Crystal! It was so fun to see your thought process in how you choose books! I’m similar in that I tend to always have a fun fiction book and a non-fiction/business-y or personal development book going at the same time. I think I need to stick to your 3-book limit though. I’m forever finding steals from BookBub and have way too many books to finish. Can’t wait to get set up at the library here in San Diego!

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