Today’s university study was pretty hectic.

I had ordered my textbooks a little late, and I made the blunder of not printing off my study schedule immediately. This meant that during the first two weeks I wasn’t even aware of the readings and exercises found in the textbooks. My advice to any external student- PRINT OFF YOUR STUDY SCHEDULE! It gives you a great idea of what you should do each week, and trust me, catch-up is not fun.

So today I completed one lecture I had started reading, 1 textbook chapter on finding information in libraries and elsewhere, and exercises on previewing books, exercises on why I’m at university and explored the morass of history from a post-modern perspective.

I could do a blog post on every one of these subjects. Let’s take previewing books.

I thought this an extremely helpful tool. I tend to become sidetracked by every interesting little nook of information, which wastes time and doesn’t help me finish assignments. So previewing is just the sort of tool I need.

Previewing is not an academic activity, we actually all do it, it’s just that normally we’re not very good at it. Whenever we browse a bookshelf or do a google-search we’re previewing each source and deciding whether or not we want to read more of it.

To get the best insight into a book and to make the most informed but timely decision about whether you want to read this book, you need to be intentional about it.

How you preview depends on your needs. If you’re just picking books off the shelf to read, then you just need a quick few minutes to find out if the book is worth reading. If you’re trying to choose a major source to rely on for study, then you want to preview it much more thoroughly.

Here’s some of the tricks:

  • Check the cover: What is the title and illustrations?
  • Read a summary on the back or inside the front cover
  • Check out the author(s)’ biography- are they an authority on the subject, or good enough for what you want?
  • What type of publisher produced the book? What sort of audience were they trying to reach? This will influence the sort of book it is.
  • Read the table of contents. This gives you an excellent idea of what’s in the book (duh).
  • Is there an introduction? Maybe it’s worth reading. Introductions can give you an idea of the goal of the book very clearly and succinctly.
  • Read the first and last paragraphs of the book. This gives you a taste of how the book is written, and are often the most pointed and on-message paragraphs in the book.
  • Flip through the pages- subheadings or graphs, tables and pictures are signals that indicate what the rest of the book is about
  • The index is often neglected but very helpful (if the book has one). A quick flick through the index shows you the sorts of topics covered and how much coverage the author gives them
  • The bibliography also shows you how much research was put into the book (and therefore how reliable it is) and also the stance the book is coming from. Most authors tend to rely on sources that agree with them.

I think you could do a reasonable preview of all that in maybe 15-20 minutes easy, unless it was big book with a large index or introduction etc.

Which  tricks you use depends on your goals. If you just want an interesting book on cats, you may not need to check out the index, bibliography and/or the introduction. If you need a book that provides you with a lot of information that is of a very high standard, you will want to spend more time in a in-depth preview.

If you’re previewing a novel, I probably wouldn’t recommend reading the last paragraph, but the biography, any forwards, prefaces, dedications or recommendations can all give you an idea of what the book’s like.

These previewing tricks were great. I think they’ll save me a lot of time, and also help me choose better books. Most of them are applicable for internet searching, and I can spend (or waste) a lot of time on those too!