How to Pre-read a Book

So many books so little time. If you are a reader, you not only know that, you feel it. I certainly do. One of my regular frustrations is the stacks of unread books in my home and study, and the ever-growing lists of books that I want to read. Theology. Biblical studies. Philosophy. Sociology. Spirituality. Popular Christian Living. Novels. Classical Fiction. Poetry. I'm interested in all of it. The problem is in knowing which books to read. How do I decide? Will this book be worth the investment of my time and money? To read a book, for me at least, is to enter into a relationship with it. A marriage of minds, so to speak. But how do I know if I'm ready for the commitment? It helps to "date" the book first! This is what I call pre-reading. I think I initially got the idea from Mortimer Adler's popular How to Read a Book. If I remember rightly, this is is what he would call the first stage of reading.

Pre-reading is a way of getting acquainted with a book prior to making the commitment to actually read the book. I don't like to read 100 pages of a book and then quit (although I occasionally do). When I start something, I really want to finish it. But how can I know if I really want to read an entire book? Pre-reading is the answer.

There are a number of things that I do - almost unconsciously - when I'm trying to decide whether to read a book. These are my routines for "dating" the book - deciding if I want to make the commitment to actually stick with it to the end or not.

Title and Author

The obvious first step all readers take before reading a book is just reading the title of the book and noticing the author. Titles sometimes, if not always, say much about a book's contents. I'm not likely to read a book that doesn't have a title that interests me. Sometimes it is the title that grabs my attention to begin with. For example, today I checked out of the library Thomas L. Friedman's book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century - all because of the title.

I also note the author(s) and read what I can about him/her/them. I always read the "about the author" page of a book, and usually before I start the book. I want to know who is speaking to me. Where does he live? What does she do? Where did he receive his education? Who does she work for? What kind of books have they written? Knowing something about the author helps me frame the book in a context. To know the world of the book, it is helpful to first know something about the world of its author.

Blurbs and Endorsments

I also almost always read the blurbs and endorsments on a book's cover and inside pages. It doesn't take long to do this. But this short exercise informs me in two ways. First, assuming the publishers have done their job, the blurbs tell me what the book is about by giving me a short summary of the books contents. Second, assuming there are endorsments (as there often are for established authors), I learn what others think of the book.


Occasionally, I also read more lengthy reviews on books. If I'm thinking about purchasing a book, I'll often read at least one or two reviews first. If I am trying to decide on the best choice of a book among several on any given topic, then I rely on reviews and personal recommendations from others. If a book consistently gets poor reviews, I will likely pass it by. A book with high marks is more likely to receive further investigation.

Every once in a while, I just randomly read book reviews on a site like Amazon. I did this a few years ago when I was looking for a really good novel to read on vacation. I found a reviewer who had read dozens, if not hundreds, of novels and decided to read only his four and a half and five star reviews. I took note of a dozen or so titles that sounded interesting and ended up reading two or three of them. One of them was Oxygen by Randall Ingermanson and John Olson. I had never heard of it before and had to search several libraries to find it. But I could hardly put it down and it remains one of my favorite novels of all time.

Footnotes, Endnotes, Bibliographies, and Sources

Another part of my pre-reading is scanning the footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies and sources of a book. This is especially important for non-fiction books on biblical studies and theology. If I am scanning a new book on the emerging church or the New Perspective on Paul, I want to be sure the author has done his homework. I'm not interested in a reading a poorly researched book. If the book is an introduction to literature, I want the author to have a good grasp of the full spectrum of literature.


I'm also interested in finding out who some the primary influencers are in an author's thinking or what an author has to say about a given passage, text, author, or book. So sometimes I scan the indices for particular names or references, then read the relevant sections. Of course this all depends on whether the book has good documentation or not. Older books tend to not be as thorough in this regard. And that is not necessarily an indication of the book's quality. I've noticed that C. S. Lewis's books almost never have much documentation, even when he quotes other authors. But I don't think I've ever regretted reading one of Lewis's books. One danger with footnotes and bibliographies is that they can disguise an author's lack of original thinking. Of making many footnotes there is no end, so be careful not be deceived by the appearance of scholarship! Still, take a look.

Table of Contents

Another thing I always do is read the Table of Contents. Chapter titles and subheadings, if written well, help orient me to the overall flow of the book. Sometimes a chapter immediately grabs my interest and I turn to it and start reading. At least once I have started a book in the middle and read to the end, and then turned around and read the first half!

Spot-reading and Skimming

Then I often spot-read and skim. I may read a chapter or part of a chapter. If the book I am reading is academic, sometimes I read the last chapter and the conclusion first, just to find out where the author is going (don't ever do this with a novel, though!). I frequently browse and skim-read for thirty minutes or an hour before purchasing a book or deciding to actually read it through. Sometimes I skim for an hour or two and walk away feeling like I've gotten all that a particular book can offer me. Reading every word becomes unnecessary.

The Fifty Page Rule

Finally, I observe what might be called "the fifty page rule." When I actually decide to start a book, I consider the first fifty pages or so probationary. The book is still on trial. The author needs to prove himself to me to keep me reading. Sometimes I am hooked in the first ten pages. Very often I am not. There are multitudes of books on my shelves that have only been 1/4 or 1/10 read. Several months ago I started Larry Crab's book Inside Out. But after around fifty pages (I don't remember exactly) I still wasn't hooked. It wasn't that the book wasn't good. But it wasn't great. It felt dated and repetitive to me. I've read too many other books on similar themes that are better. It didn't feel worth my time to keep reading. I'm especially ruthless with fiction. A couple of years ago I started Ted Dekker's book Heaven's Wager. But after fifty pages or so, I was bored and uninterested. The plot was too slow in developing. The characters seemed thin and artificial. The details were getting in the way of the story. So I quit.

Knowing When to Quit

I don't feel badly about quitting a book at fifty pages. I think a basic rule of thumb in most reading should be read what interests you. Follow your literary nose. If you can pick up the trail of a good story or idea in a book, then chase it down. Keep reading until you find what you're looking for. But don't spend a lot of time trying to maintain interest in a book. Know when to quit on a book that's just not helping you.

Knowing When to Stick

But there are a few exceptions to this rule. There is a place for disciplined reading - for plodding along even when your interest wanes. Sometimes we need to keep reading until we are interested (or until we finish the book, as the case may be). This would be true for Scripture, for reading assignments (in school or vocational training), and for recognized "great books." When I was a teenager I read Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and it took me an entire year. It was a hard read for me at the time, full of confusing plot-lines and seemingly unrelated characters. But I'm glad I stuck with it, because everything came together in the last third of the book and I now remember it as one of the best novels I've read. Older books are typically more difficult to read. But they are also still around because they are better books. And these are worth sticking with, even when our interest level may be low.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Any tips on how to pre-read a long blog?