first, choose a nonfiction book you’d like to read and set aside an hour or so. I recommend something that feels like reading it would be nice, but which you do not feel a lot of pressure to read.
second, read the title page and scan the preface. at this point, try to set aside your impressions and see what the author thinks the book is actually about. the title and subtitle might actually be a better guide to this than anything you’ve heard about the book.
third, using the table of contents as a guide, take a few chapters (the first, the last, and any which seem particularly vital or pivotal to the book), and sort of x-ray them. read the first and last few paragraphs; read the section titles if it has any, read the first and last paragraph or two of each section. you don’t need to be strict about this, the point is to get a sense of the contents of these chapters and their relationship to the book as a whole.
fourth, examine the remaining chapters in the same manner. any order will be fine. just adjust as necessary if you find you’re losing sight of the whole work or of the parts of the chapter at hand.
again, you should spend no more than an hour on these four steps. you want to get a feel for the contents of the whole, and for the contents of each chapter that comprises the whole. this sounds like a difficult task, but it’s actually fairly straightforward. you just take an hour or so and apply these steps.
when you’re ready, you can now read the book in full. you will have the bones, and much of the meat, in your head already. the book should be far less intimidating, and your comprehension should be far higher. but there’s no reason you need to do this any time soon. hopefully, with some books, you will feel compelled to give a more thorough reading right away. if you don’t, that’s fine and now you know. move on to another book.
an optional step
after the fourth step, there’s one more thing you can do to flesh out this big picture, even and maybe especially if you’re not going to do a close reading now or ever. it’s this: read the whole book from cover to cover in one sitting. don’t pause to look anything up or to contemplate the contents. this isn’t about close reading, it’s about broad reading. give yourself permission to read this way. this step may be more of a time investment, but you can actually kind of merge it with your pre-reading after enough practice.