Pre-ReadingBecause each author chooses not only the words of each sentence but also how the sentences are sequenced, getting to know an author happens by first examining the overall structure of a work. This is perhaps the most useful and most neglected reading skill among theological students.

Pre-reading occurs before you begin reading through a work and helps you to gain a comprehensive overview of an author’s work, as well as a basic introduction to its major parts. 

Pre-reading familiarizes you with the book or article and tells you what to expect from it. This step is therefore brief, focused, and invaluable. For a 300-page book, 20 minutes of pre-reading can save you time later. When pre-reading, follow these steps:

  • Look at the cover of the book. What do the title and subtitle tell you about the author’s subject matter, scope, and purpose?
  • Look at the back cover and inside covers. These places often provide book summaries, endorsements, and information about the author. Try to learn all that you can about the author’s background, intellectual context, and motive for writing. What does this information suggest about the purpose and intended audience of a book? 
  • Turn to the table of contents and survey the chapters and subsections. If you are reading an article, flip through it and identify the major sections. How do these chapter and section titles clarify your understanding of the author’s topic? What do they tell you about the author’s approach to the material? What are the author’s major emphases? Has the author left out important aspects of his topic?
  • Skim through the introductory and concluding chapters, sections, or paragraphs, taking note of any key words or phrases. What do these sections tell you about the author’s goal, assumptions, methodology, and conclusions? 
  • Flip through the body of the work investigating section headings. What do these headings tell you about how the author has laid out his discussion? What sources of explanation does the author use for making his argument? How does the author appear to go about proving ideas? In what order and why? 
  • If your understanding of the basic nature of the book or article is still unclear, look through the introduction and conclusion in greater depth. If you still need a better introduction to the work, consult additional resources such as book reviews, encyclopedias, or web-based materials.

Here is an example of how brief consideration of a book’s title and opening paragraphs illuminates the author’s goal:

The second paragraph of Robert R. Wilson’s Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel begins,

In light of recent advances in prophetic research, it is all the more surprising that we still do not have a clear picture of the role that prophecy played in Israelite society.  For purposes of study, the prophets have usually been isolated from their social matrix, and no comprehensive attempt has been made to examine the complex relationships that must have existed between the prophets and their society.  (Wilson 1980, 2) 

From the key words and phrases underlined in the passage above, it is clear that the author is identifying an issue that has been poorly understood (“we still do not have a clear picture . . . no comprehensive attempt has been made”). Part of the reason for the lack of clarity appears to be a faulty methodology (“the prophets have usually been isolated  from their social matrix”).   

Given these observations, it appears that Wilson will attempt to provide a picture of the Israelite prophets in “complex relationships” with their “social matrix.” This is, in fact, Wilson’s goal, as his title Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel indicates. Once you grasp his goal, turn it into a question, "How were Israelite prophets related to their social context?" Use this question to help you focus your reading.

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