Getting the Big Picture of a Book

Reasons to Get the Big Picture of a Book

You can get the "big picture" of what a textbook's all about by previewing it. Textbook previewing (also known as pre-reading or surveying) has three main purposes:

  1. Find out what topics the textbook covers.
  2. See how the content is organized within the textbook.
  3. Discover what additional resources the textbook offers.

Previewing can be done at the book level or at the chapter level. This page focuses on previewing at the book level. (For information about previewing at the chapter level, see Getting the Big Picture of a Chapter.)

How to Get the Big Picture of a Book

The concept of previewing at the book level involves taking a "quick peek" at some of the book's content and key organizational features, i.e., What is it about and how is it organized? This might be an entirely new idea for many of you. Most people just start reading the first chapter without paying attention to the overall organization of the book. Previewing helps you to get a general idea of what the book is about before you actually begin reading the book chapter by chapter.

There are several steps to previewing a book. After each step outlined below, you will find emphasized in italics the important information you should jot down when pre-reading textbooks for a class or important books for work.

Title Page

The title page is designed to provide you with information regarding the author(s), the publisher, the copyright date and the edition of the book. This information will be very important when using the book as a reference in a report, when determining how current the information is, etc.

From the title page, you should get the author's name, publisher's name, edition of the book, and copyright date.

Foreword and Preface

The foreword is typically written by someone other than the author of the book. It provides the reader with a different perspective of the book. The preface, on the other hand, is written by the author and explains why the author chose to write the book and what the author thinks are the main ideas of the book.

If there is a foreword and/or a preface, you should jot down a few main ideas that jump out at you, especially those that clue you in to what the book's focus is.


The introduction explains what the book is about, the organization of the book and what you might expect to learn from reading the book.

Record several (three to five) main ideas provided by the intro re: the book's subject matter, its organization, and what you think you'll learn by reading the book.

Table of Contents

The table of contents provides some detail as to how the book is organized. It lists topics and subtopics involved in each chapter of the book.

Again, capture some big picture information about how the book is organized (e.g., main subdivisions of chapters, often represented by unit titles) and perhaps about how detailed the Table of Contents is.


The index is a valuable alphabetical reference of topics and people written about in the book.

Note how extensive the index is and how it is organized (e.g., does it index people separately from concepts?). How useful do you think it will it be for you?


The glossary is a mini-dictionary at the back of the book. It makes finding the definition of key words within the book a snap.

Same as with the index—how extensive is it and how is it organized? This way, you can determine how useful it will be to you as you progress through the book.


The appendix includes additional information related to the book. The appendix might include charts, graphs, surveys, survey responses, full text of important documents, etc.

Note what specific appendices (if any) are available, in case you need them later in the course.

Not all books include every one of the above-mentioned components involved in previewing.


When you get a new book (or even when you're considering purchasing a book), take the time to pre-read it. You will be surprised at how much you know before you even begin reading the chapters.

Page last modified: February 12 2012.