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Boning Up on Something? Build a Better Reading List...

There will be times in everybody's working life when they need to learn a new subject, and get up to speed quickly and effectively so they can turn around and do some real work in a new area. I've had to face this situation myself many times in my working career, particularly when researching and learning focused subject matter for a book or an article.

In the spirit of "give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a woman to fish; feed her for a lifetime" (sexist orientation unavoidable for brevity, so genders changed to give both a chance), I'd like to explain how to put together a good reading list on a particular subject so you can proceed with reasonable assurance that what you dig into actually has some relevance to the subject at hand.

Piling Up Materials For a Reading List

I've learned how to distill this into lists of books and articles that address specific subjects, where I search online and pull information together to get things moving. As you read more, you'll also find more "good stuff"--if only by checking the citations and bibliographies that so many technical and scholarly works include as a matter of routine.

I have three primary techniques that I use to put a first-class reading list together when I'm researching a topic. You can see examples of this kind of effort from the now-defunct NetPerformance.com Website where I was Editor-in-Chief in 2006 and 2007 before CA bought NetQoS. I put 20-plus such reading lists together for them at this time, which you can find on the Wayback Machine in its October 2007 snapshot as a "Reading Lists" page.

How did I build them? Good question! I used four basic techniques that you can employ yourself to craft killer reading lists of your own:

  1. Using the Advanced Search on the Amazon Books page, I use the topic name in the Keywords field, then choose the "Avg. Customer Review" option in the Sort Results by: drop-down menu box. If this doesn't produce enough results, I'll drop keyword into the Title box instead, and may opt for "Bestselling" in the Sort Results box instead. Works like a charm!
  2. I'll use Google, Bing, or your favorite search engine to look for "<search term> reading list" where you substitute various ways to identify your topic area for the generic <search term> item. I also look for college courses in the same topic area, then check their reading lists as well.
  3. Visit and get to know Google Scholar: it's a search tool that focuses on academic books, papers, and publications to provide a more scholarly take on information search. It's invaluable for building reading lists, because its searches reflect the results of all of the ongoing look-ups it handles for its entire user community.
  4. Troll for study groups, enthusiast sites, or focused communities around your chosen subject matter. This can take some time and effort, so be patient while you cast about. But when you find an active and engaged  community around a subject,  you'll also find no better source of well-informed and highly motivated recommendations for reading and research materials and resources. I list this one last, because it's what I'll use when deciding which items I've found for steps 1-3 are really worth keeping and sharing with others.

Follow this approach and you, too, can build yourself a reading list for anything you might need to study and learn.