I love the feeling of walking into a bookstore or searching through the online bookstores of Logos or Amazon. It’s just plain exciting. But when you are picking a book you’ve never heard of, it is an art. There’s nothing more disappointing then shelling out your hard earned money for a book that is so disappointing you can’t even offload it on your worst enemies (believe me, I’ve tried!).
So what are a few ways to prevent your greenbacks from going down the drain? Here’s how I generally do it:
(1) Check the Index. Assuming we are talking about biblical or theological books (this is a theological blog after all), your book will likely have some sort of an index. Some books will have a subject index as well as a name index. Learn to use these to your advantage! If you are a reader, you’ll probably already have a list of theologians you have learned to “trust,” and how the book you are looking at either quotes or interacts with those authors can help you determine whether you might enjoy the book in question. You can also check out the subject index for some guidance. For instance, when I’m looking at books on the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology) from authors I’ve never heard of, I will generally see whether they interact with or quote Gordon D. Fee and what they say about the subject of Tongues (glossolalia), the “Baptism of the Spirit,” and Inspiration. A books index can help you determine if you have found a goldmine or if you have found yourself a paperweight best left for another unfortunate buyer.
(2) Find the Author’s Proposal. This can be tricky. Not every author is as clear on the “big idea” and it can take some time trying to find the “conclusion” to a book. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t always trust the description located on the inside of the book sleeve or on the back cover. These are often written by publishers and can be an attempt to attract the masses more than do an adequate job of describing the content found within. Of course, that’s not always the case and it often depends upon the creative influence that the author has (i.e., the more well known the author, the more control he or she may have). Since the book description can be hit or miss, consider checking the final chapter or look for the words “proposal” or “conclusion.” These can be located in the introduction or in the final chapter. If the book has an appendix (or two), you may get a feel for the quality of writing there as well.
(3) Consult Footnotes. Unless your book is written for a “popular” audience and has the horrible “spawn-of-satan” known as “endnotes,” footnotes can be a great way to get a feel for the type of scholarship. Endnotes are just stupid. Who in the world wants to keep one finger in the back of the book while reading? Publishers, take note… and not an endnote. When you are interested in what a book is about, the footnotes can give you a feel for the type of sources that author is both interacting with, critical of, and finds support in. If you are able to find these footnotes by way of the an author’s index, you can also find out whether or not the book in question adequately represents works you are already familiar with. For instance, when I’m reading a book critical of Charismatic Theology, I’ll check and see if Grudem’s view on New Testament prophecy is represented adequately. If I’m reading a book that’s critical of Inerrancy, I’m going to check and see if the scholars criticized are properly understood. Footnotes can reveal a lot about a book. You can also find out if the book is a popular level book (little or no footnotes) or for the super scholar (more footnotes than actual paragraphs!). Footnotes can help a lot.
(4) Table of Contents. Now if you’ve really found yourself a great theological book, the Table of Contents will be well developed. There, I said it. I really like when author’s have a developed outline that gives you a snap shot of the book’s substance. Recently, I found James Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment as a perfect example of having a detailed outline. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have a one page Table of Contents followed by a more detailed outline that expands that Table of Contents. In the event that the book you are looking at does, in fact, have a detailed Table of Contents, take advantage of the opportunity and flip through the sections that grab your attention! Seriously, not all books have these, so when you find one in a book that you know nothing about, they can help you a ton.
(5) Use your iPhone. Okay, I sound like an Apple snob, so I’ll add that if you have a cell phone that allows you to search the Internet, use that one too. Check out the reviews on Amazon. Visit Best Commentaries and drink deep. Heck, you can even try google. Use your smart phone for something that can save you valuable time and the cash your mom sent you for your birthday.
Hopefully this will help you avoid stacking your shelves with some paperweights. You’ll get better as you go!
What about you? Are there any steps or helpful insights that keep you from buying poor books?