The great author Mortimer Adler—author of How to Read a Book—said that before someone can read, he must pre-read. A person must know how to skim a book before he reads the whole thing.
Imagine you are standing in a library. The bookshelves run for miles. You take a volume off the shelf. Should you sit down and read the whole book or just a portion? Does the book deserve five minutes or five hours? Should you read the book from cover to cover, or just the first page? Sometimes an authority assignsyou a book to read and you have the read the entire thing. But often, you get to decide how much of the book you want to read. If you want to know how much of the book you should devote yourself to, learn how to skim(or pre-read)a book.
Skimming a book is important because we have limited time. It’s nonsense when a person says they always read a book from cover to cover. That person is a poor reader. Never read more than what the book is worth. This may mean giving it five minutes; it may also mean reading it through twice.
Imagine a young man in a beautiful bookstore. Let’s call him Stephen. The room is full of glossy books. Stephen wants to devour each one. His time and money are limited. Stephen can’t buy each book. He can only buy the best. How can he decide which book to purchase? How can Stephen protect himself from wasting his time and money?
One option is that Stephen sits down reads each volume from cover to cover. Then after that, he can decide which book to purchase. The problem is that the shop owner will kick him out before he finishes. Stephen only has 30 minutes. He must take a shortcut. You must pre-read. You must skim, the first type of inspectional reading.
How can Stephen makes a good purchase? This is something young people especially need to learn. Here are ten steps:
1. Look at the title page and preface.
This gives a general idea of the book. Stephen should do this quickly. He sees a book sitting on the shelf. The title doesn’t catch his eye. It’s a book about preaching at funerals. This doesn’t interest him. The book next to it has the title An Alarm to the Unconverted. The subtitle says: Why You Need Jesus.
This grabs Stephen’s attention. He wants to know why he needs Jesus. The words “alarm” and “unconverted” resonate with him. He takes the book off the shelf. He moves to the next step.
2. Notice the author.
The author is like the manufacturer of a car. When your friend buys a 4×4, the first thing you ask is: “What’s the make?” If he says Toyota, you give him a thumbs up. If he says Tata, you give him a look of sympathy. This is because Toyota makes quality vehicles. Toyota has a name you can trust.
In the same way, certain authors have labored to build a name you can trust. They are like the Toyota of books. Even if the title doesn’t interest you, the names of Luther, Calvin, and Lloyd-Jones earn your respect. The names of Bauer, Sowell, and Sproul earn your trust. In the same way, certain authors lose your respect. They are the Tata of books. Even if the title interests you, you won’t buy it. Books with authors like Hinn, Osteen, Furtick and Copeland should not fill the shelves of a thoughtful Christian’s library.
This is why the author’s name is almost always on the cover books. Don’t buy a vehicle if the name of the manufacturer is hidden. Don’t buy a book if the author’s name is hidden. Whothe author is has just as much importance as whatthe author says. The first is called ethos. The second is called logos. Both are essential for persuasion. This is a Biblical principle. Not only should preachers say the right thing (“Preach the word”, 2Tm. 4:2), but they must also be the right kind of people (the qualifications of a pastor, 1Tm. 3).
Stephen notices the author: Joseph Alleine. Then he flips the book over and finds more information about him on the back. He lived from 1634-1668. This impresses Stephen. If a man wrote a book 400 years ago and people are still reading it, chances are it’s a good book. He continues reading the short blurb about the author. “Joseph Alleine was an English pastor and writer. He was educated at Oxford, under John Owen and Thomas Goodwin.” This makes Alleine even more attractive, since he was a Puritan and learned under other men Stephen respects, like John Owen.
3. Study the table of contents.
Next, Stephen flips to the beginning, where he finds the Table of Contents. This gives a good overview of the book, like a road map. This is equivalent to kicking the tires on a Toyota.
He notices the book has eight chapters. This gives him a rough idea on what the book is about. If you’re buying the book on Amazon, there are often features that allow you to do this as well.
4. Check the index.
This covers the range of topics and the books cited. Many books don’t have an index. If it does, the index serves as a handy tool to overview the book’s primary subjects. Stephan notices there is no index in Alleine’s small paperback.
5. Find the publisher.
There are some publishers that have such a reputable name that you can buy the book without even worrying about the topic or author. Banner of Truth fits into this category.
The publisher’s logo is always found on the spine of the book, with more publisher information found in the early pages. You can often tell a lot about a handyman if he uses Bosch over Ryobi. In the same way, you can tell a lot about a book by the publisher. Good publishers print good books. Other examples of good Christian publishers are Crossway, P&R and Canon Press. It’s not a foolproof rule. Sometimes good publishers let a stinker through. And sometimes a blind squirrel publishes a good nut. I’m mixing my metaphors.
6. Read the publisher’s blurb and endorsements.
The publisher’s blub often uses a paragraph or two to summarize the book. Books often come with endorsements, located on the back cover or in the early pages. Stephen notices the president of Ligonier Ministries endorses Alleine’s book. Stephen had never heard of Alleine, but he knows and respects Ligonier Ministries. His heart has become strangely warmed.
7. Find the publication date.
The date tells you a lot. Most books don’t reach a second printing. They hit the press once and then are forgotten. The longer a book has been in print, the better chance it’s a good book. Sometimes the dates are tricky. Stephen notices Christian Heritage published the book in 2021. But that only refers to the latest edition. The book has really been in print for hundreds of years. Keep your eye out for these things.
8. Peruse the book here and there.
Always read the last few pages (a novel may be an exception). Read the first couple pages. Jump in the middle and pick out a few paragraphs to read. Cherry pick a few other sections to get an overall idea of the book. Act like a detective looking for clues.
9. Find a book review or book summary online.
Amazon readers review books, as does Good Reads and often the publisher of that particular book. The publisher on my book about John Paton has a place for reviews, as well as video overviews by reputable readers. There are some websites devoted to book reviews. Book Summary sites basically outline the whole book. They are more thorough than a normal review.
Dozens of times I’ve nearly purchased a book, but after reading some reviews, I decided it would be better to read a summary, or perhaps skip it all together.
10. Check prices
There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from wasting money. First, check if you can get the book for free on PDF. Google something like “Alarm to the Unconverted PDF”. Second, older books are often in public domain, which means you can get them as digital books for free or maybe $1 on Kindle.
Third, check the price on Amazon or other comparable sites. If the price is close to that of the book you see in the bookstore, I often like to buy it there. Help support your local bookseller. But often you’ll find the book for much cheaper elsewhere. In our world of technology, this only takes a few seconds to check.
Conclusion: A good reader pre-reads. A good reader skims by following these ten steps. If he follows these, he’ll save himself a lot of time and money. He’ll also make a habit of reading only the best books.