How to judge a rune book:
1. Does the author stick to the traditional order of the runes and use historically attested symbols? (Anyone who insists that a "blank rune" or the "uthark" theory is valid, flunks this test.)
2. Does the author support his opinions with Germanic historical and mythical texts -- not relying on outside traditions or personal revelations too heavily? (People who put runes on Native American medicine wheels or the Kabbalah Tree of Life flunk this test. So does anyone who interprets the runes largely through invented eclectic magickal experiments, with no real cultural or historical support.)
3. Does the author use the same language for rune names throughout the book? (Calling one rune by its Norse name and the next by its Anglo-Saxon name is bad linguistics, and probably means that the other facts are just as poorly researched.)
4. Does the author avoid distorting the meanings of the runes to fit a personal agenda? (An ultra-feminist author trying to eliminate all male references from the runes would flunk this test. The same goes for a "new age" or wiccan author trying to eliminate all solar or warrior references).
Here are the books I recommend for beginners.
General Rune-Books: these books don't necessarily agree on everything, but provide a basic general background on Runes.
If you dare to explore the more advanced realms of Rune-practices and their mystical side, you can check out the following classic books on the Armanen runes and their associated modern disciplines (like Stadhagaldr, i.e. "rune-yoga") by German rune-masters (translation quality can vary). These books contain some modern rituals and practices, but these are nevertheless still culturally grounded in Germanic Lore and Indo-European traditions and archetypes:
Thorsson, Edred: Rune Might (History and Practices of the Early 20th Century German Magicians, Revised and Expanded) Runa-Raven Press, 2nd edition, 2004. Covers most of the bases for English-speakers to Armanism and continental (German/Austrian) Rune-Magick. Less ideologically and personally slanted than most of Thorsson's (Stephen Flowers') books, but the intro pages heavily promote his own organization, the Rune-Gild, which has been the subject of controversy. Luckily there's a free PDF copy out there in case you have ethical issues about supporting him.
Siegfried Adolf Kummer. Rune-Magic. Translation by Edred Thorsson. Runa-Raven press. (Warning: this PDF version of the translation appears to be spammed with some random bits of Theosophical and other unrelated occult books but these bits are all in bordered boxes. For the un-tampered original German text, click here.)
Siegfried Adolf Kummer. Heilige Runenmacht (Holy Rune-Might). Original German text. Modern reprint.
Karl Spiesberger. Rune-Magic. Original German text, 1954 (cram it into Google Translate if you must, but the pictures are pretty self-explanatory. This is the go-to text for Stadhagaldr).
Karl Spiesberger. Rune-Praxis and Rune-exercises. Original German text. (REALLY in-depth explanation of Stadhagaldr rune-postures and meditations).
Larry Camp. A Handbook of Armanen Runes. 2009. (Short booklet - salvaged from the remains of the original after a computer crash - which recaps most of the basic Armanen practices).
These should keep you busy for a while.
Books to Avoid:
I do not recommend Ralph Blum's Book of Runes, Healing Runes, or Serenity Runes, which are commonly available and come with ceramic rune sets of very poor quality. In my opinion, these books are pure new-age slop with ZERO cultural grounding in even the most revisionist runic tradition. They are not accurate, and are shallow and disappointing.
Also I have decided against recommending anything by some popular authors, like Diana Paxson, Nigel Pennick, or Kvedulf Gundarsson (real name Stephan Grundy). Their books contain a ton of bad information and outright falsehoods; basically they are wishy-washy "Wicca-tru" not Asatru, and not a good source for rune-readings and rituals (they basically invent their own meanings instead of going by Lore-based ones from the Hávamál and the traditional Rune-Poems). These people began as New-Age fantasy authors (and not very good ones), and are still largely stuck in a teenage fantasy "Harry Potter/Twilight" mindset when it comes to their Rune-related writings. They are also notorious for grossly misrepresenting Indo-European culture and ethics and injecting post-modernist and neo-Marxist socio-babble into nearly all of their books. Also stay far away from anything by Galina Krasskova or Raven Kaldera, for most of the same reasons, plus their obsession with paraphilias, self-torture, and quasi-Talmudic slave morality.
Don't buy those cheap ugly clay or plastic "rune sets" that come with bad-quality Rune books in most bookstores. Rune sets are available from other sources or you can make your own. The following sources I have actually bought from so I can personally recommend them.
If you want to buy natural wood rune sets, I suggest either Terrarus or Alaska Laser Maid. Their natural wood rune sets are great quality, at a reasonable price. Alaska Laser Maid makes boxed rune sets (laser-cut) so there's no need to buy a bag or risk damaging the rune tiles from jostling around.
Also if you're willing to wait a while for shipping, "olvocustoms" makes a very nice and affordable set of "Elder" Futhark runes. A good mix of modern tech and old-school artisanship, they are CNC engraved (not burned!) from Ash wood and come in an old-school handmade fiber bag with drawstring. You do get a few spare blank tiles (not for "blank runes" or other such nonsense, but just for pre-testing oils and such in case you want to oil your rune set to weatherproof it).
The best Rune sets money can buy, (save up!) are those created by Fehu Crafts in Poland. They aren't cheap, and the shipping takes some time, but they are worth every penny. Crafted of solid oak, with custom boxed sets available, stained in natural Bismarck Brown and sealed with beeswax, these big, hefty Rune sets are truly heirloom quality and built to last lifetimes. Currently, Elder and Armanen Rune sets are available in a few different versions, both with or without their custom wood boxes.
CORE SOURCE TEXTS:
Lastly, if you want to gain a better understanding of Norse and Germanic cosmology and the unique mystical worldview of the ancient Skalds and Vitkar within which Runic rituals and practices developed, it is good to read the Eddas, especially the Poetic Edda, while understanding that it is heavy with metaphor and not every myth and legend was to be taken literally. There are several translations out there. Olive Bray's and James Chisholm's are among the best free ones, though they still have some inaccuracies. (I would avoid recommending Lee Hollander's translation because it is so word-for-word as to destroy most of the symbolic language, and so jam-packed with obscure academic footnotes as to make the story almost disappear in a literal beaver's lodge of annotation.)
For a short and no-nonsense translation of the Hávamál, the easiest option to read and understand is my own, translated line-for-line, uncensored, from the Old Norse original, with parallel Old Norse text, an Old Norse Glossary, and cultural notes, with a Foreword by A.D. Mercer (Author of RUNEN: The Wisdom of the Runes). My Hávamál translation is available in both Hardcover and Paperback, here:
A few of the stories, in particular Odin's Rune-Quest in the Hávamál, as well as the telling of Ragnarok and the Well of Wyrd, are heavily symbolic of the Runic journey and initiation from one state of awareness into another.
Some of the sagas, such as Volsunga Saga, or its alternate form Sigdrífumal, also contain large passages about Runes and Runic rites. I recommend finding a good translation of these too.