October 16, 2009, 11:28 AM — After my advice on self-training employees a few days ago, some folks asked me how to pick the right technical books for their situation. Valid question, because popular topics may have a shelf-full of books to choose from. How do you find yours? Try these three tips.
First, decide if you need a beginner, intermediate, or advanced book on your topic of choice. Some publishers put helpful guides on the back cover of books, especially programming books. If there's no clue, flip through the book pages. If what you read seems way too hard and full of terms and ideas you've never seen, it may be Papa Bear's book. If everything you read you already know, it may be Baby Bear's book. If what you read seems to make sense but add new and helpful details, that may be Mama Bear's book. Consider that for your “buy” pile.
Second, read the Table of Contents carefully, or the index, whichever you prefer. Publishers say the TOC and index are the choice of the majority of potential buyers, because they can see all the topics on display. I buy books when they have a full chapter dedicated to the problem I'm trying to solve. Of course, if your book subject is “the problem” you're trying to solve, like programming a Web site, check the chapters and see if the progression of building from one to the next suits you and feels right.
Finally, do you learn better from words or pictures? Used to, all you had were words in long blocks of text. Computer books started adding lots of screenshots so readers could see in the book what they should see on the screen. Now, several publisher have entire book series packed with full color drawings, photos, diagrams, and charts. Again, pick what you're most comfortable using and learning from, and buy that book.
What tips do you have for finding the right technical book? Tell us in the comments below.