Here it comes again. The summer is ending and for millions school beckons. Soon droves of students will be issued reading lists, inventories of books they are told to they need to read to learn how to become the best, the greatest, or as successful as (fill in famous name here). If you think about it, it's not unlike those must-read book lists pushed to you as an adult professional, the ones that Richard Branson or Bill Gates purportedly tell you simply must be read if you are ever to be the success you long to be.

Don't get me wrong. It's interesting and informative to know what others are reading and to hear the importance of those books to them. But those two little concluding words -- to them -- are precisely the problem. In an honest moment, I think you and I can admit that we are not now nor likely ever to be the next Arianna Huffington or Peter Thiel. So why look so trustingly to them to dictate what sits on your nightstand?

Here's an experience I've had over time that I'm guessing you can relate to: many of the books I've read that have taught me the most or had the greatest impact on me do not appear on the recommended lists of business luminaries, famous authors, or Hollywood stars. Even when they do, the reasons I like them typically differ from the reasons others highlight.

If you just give that simple insight more than a passing thought before you rush online to buy a book off Richard, Bill, Arianna, or Peter's lists you might suddenly find yourself with a shelf full of books that actually matter. To you. But then what? Like anything else, what makes reading worthwhile starts with a clear view of why you are doing it. And that clarity begins not with a list, but with some guidelines (and those guidelines must be your own).

Here are 4 things that can help you shape them and get you reading books that matter.

  1. Read broadly. Over time, the books I read span categories -- not traditional bookseller categories like business, biography, or mystery, but categories that serve me personally. I regularly choose books from what I think of as the "open my mind" category, for example. Other times I seek a book that fits the "great stories from history" category. What's key is to build some of your own and then to consciously move back and forth across them as you read. If you only read in one category, you tend to only think in one as well. And if those categories don't speak to what you really want, chances are the books you choose won't either.
  2. Look forward, look back, and look right now. A little side story: My son is a big reader, and when he was in middle school I tried to get him to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. It went over like a lead balloon. Part of the reason was that the book did not fit that moment in his life. But four years later it was back on his reading list (by the force of his English teacher). That second time however, he had a whole new mind to bring to the book and many tools and experiences that changed its meaning and impact. (It's now one of his favorites.) The point is this: just like readers, books are living things. What we see in them and their relevance to us shifts. So each year I try to read multi-directionally: forward, back, and right here, right now. I select my books in a similar way, including at times returning to ones I previously read or even set aside unfinished.
  3. Blend serious and fun. Some of us read only that which is related to our work. Others read purely for pleasure. I highly recommend doing both across the course of a year. I consciously shift back and forth between the poles, meaning a book read mostly for the learning is typically followed by something light, fantastic, or perhaps just shorter. By doing this, I find I come to each book with a different mindset having dwelled in a different space just prior. I find I also learn and retain more by mixing. However you happen to get there, those last two things (fresh mindset, lasting learning) are good reading goals for anyone and result in some serious fun.
  4. Just read a book. Among the privileges of the times we live in is that there is so much to read and most of it can be read virtually anywhere. But it's remarkably easy to think we are well read simply because we consume endless posts, blogs, and tweets. Reading a book is different. It's a participatory sport. A good book asks you to take part, not just to passively absorb, but to think, add context, and connect. There is no substitute for reading a book. It is in fact the unique value derived from book reading that keeps those book lists coming and piques our attention.

A book list from a successful person tempts us. But what really draws us is the value we hope to gain from reading those books. Knowing why you read and what books speak directly to you is the surest way to raise the odds that you get return you seek. Getting a handle on those things should be at the top of your list.