A Pastor's Annual Reading Plan (Part One)

For many years now, I have taken time at year's end to devise a “Reading Plan." In that plan, I set a goal of the number of books I intend to read in the coming year (usually between fifty and seventy). I determine that number by taking into consideration such things as the workload I face in the coming year (which generally limits my reading) and the amount of traveling I plan to do (which tends to increase my time for reading).

But volume is far from my only concern. I also develop a plan that will allow me to derive maximum variety and quality from my reading throughout the course of a year. I pursue a variety of authors, genre, and forms in my reading plan not only for the entertainment value, but also because such a course of intentional reading does more than broaden my horizons; it broadens me. As Clifton Fadiman writes in The New Lifetime Reading Plan, “It is rather like what is offered by loving and marrying, rearing children, carving out a career, creating a home. [Such a variety of books] can be a major experience, a source of continuous internal growth.”

I also design my reading in order to achieve a level of quality that will challenge and inform my writing and preaching...and living. My annual reading plan typically includes:
• a minimum of one biographical title, like this year's Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides.
• at least one memoir. Last year, I read three.
• a healthy dose of classics.
• a writing book or two.
• at least one history book, such as Larson’s Summer for the Gods, about the Scopes trial, or Sterling Seagrave’s The Yamato Dynasty, about Japan’s Imperial family.
• at least two books by authors I’ve never read before. I must sheepishly admit that if it were not for this annual goal, I probably would not have read such authors as John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, and Anne Tyler.
• a minimum of one poetry book each year. In 1990, for example, I read Spoon River Anthology, and the next year, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, and in 1992 Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will;
• a couple books from among my favorite authors, such as William Faulkner, C.S. Lewis, and Mark Twain.
• some Christian/inspirational books.
• a couple books in a new discipline or field of interest. For instance, one year, I explored logic; another, it was gardening.
• at least one children’s book, since I am still a child at heart and a great admirer of picture books and juvenile literature like Chris Van Allsburg’s extravagant picture books, Roald Dahl’s delightful stories, and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
• two selections from a short list of books I’ve decided to re-read every few years, some serious, some life-changing, some fanciful.
• a healthy dose of leadership and ministry-related books (last year I read thirteen in this area).
• a couple "related" books. I discovered a few years ago how fun it can be to read a few books that are related in some way, such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca, two similar novels with contrasting heroines, or following Robinson Crusoe with the nonfiction In Search of Robinson Crusoe, and adding J. M. Coetzee's Foe.
• a few books on prayer.
• and some international or inter-cultural literature, such as books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bharati Mukherjee.
Finally, for good measure, I require that at least one of the books on my list (in any category) must be what I call a “mule-choker,” a book of great heft, the intimidating sort of book I might not otherwise read. In past years, these have been books like Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), An Incomplete Education¬(Jones, Wilson), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo).


  1. I read these every year with hopes that I can make a similar list, (or read Bob's list) but I NEVER can keep up. So the list just makes me angry and bitter.

  2. Bob,

    How often do you start reading a book on your list, decide you don't like, and not pick it back up again?

  3. Good question, Ryannna...roughly 2-3 times a year, as a rule. I just make a note in my reading record so I'll know I started but didn't finish it. That way I don't mistakenly start it again sometime later. Generally, though, my reading list books (as opposed to the spontaneous picks) come by way of recommendation from one trusted source or another, so my batting average there is probably even higher.

  4. I am interested in your book-reading approach and am trying to apply it to my own life. Do you have a suggestion for me - I am a senior pastor, husband and father of four (age range: 3-9). My main issue is time. Should I carve out hours during the day? Stay up later? Get up earlier? Trying to balance consistent reading and family involvement seems difficult but I really want to try.

  5. Derek, I hear ya. My main strategy for reading is pretty simple. I never go anywhere without a book. So I grab spare moments in line or waiting for an appointment, etc. I also know, when my schedule includes travel, that is going to increase my time for reading, whereas stretches of time between vacations and travel will have less time for reading. I also celebrate a weekly Sabbath, when reading is one of my primary activities (the others being prayer, walking, and napping!). I definitely don't recommend making reading another "task" on your "to do" list, but threading it through your lifestyle.