I would guess that 9 in 10 people I meet have no real idea what the term "Calvinism" actually means. Most have never read John Calvin. Most have only met a few very conservative Calvinists who promote things like TULIP and various scholastic readings of the great reformer. (And quite a few of these are mean, separatistic and critical of almost every other expression of the Christian faith) While the TULIP does have clear historical connection with the post-Calvin developments at the Synod of Dort in Holland (and thus the conclusions of the Synod are preserved in Reformed churches down to the present time as one of the three forms of confessional unity) Dort is clearly not the whole story. When TULIP becomes the strong focus then Calvinism becomes a lot like looking at a lovely person by staring at one, not so complete and not so clear, "photo-shopped" picture. And this picture is neither accurate nor helpful.
The real Calvin is flawed. But he is also an intriguing and very important figure in church history. No one can rightly defend Calvin's actions with regard to the killing of Michael Servetus. (Yet, just last week I had someone ask me if Calvin approved the martyrdom of many that he disagreed with. This is preposterous if you know the facts at all.)
I do not defend some of Calvin's ideas about predestination, such as the idea of "double predestination." I also disagree with some of the way he expresses other biblical truths. But I remind friends and foes alike that John Calvin wrote for reasons that were not rooted primarily in the doctrine of predestination. In fact, his views on this subject should never be divorced from the whole of his purpose or you will get a distorted view of the man and of his influence upon Protestantism, especially the Reformed Church.
How should the ordinary person read John Calvin? The answer is rather simple. Read The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is certainly one of the ten most important books of theology in church history. Get the Library of Christian Classics (Westminster/John Knox) edition, edited and translated by McNeill and Battles. Their notes and comments are worth the price of the two cloth bound books and the translation is simply superb. I have been amazed over the years by what happens when ordinary people get these two volumes and begin to read them. They are devotional in style and biblical in content. This surprises many who do not know the man or his theology.
Now we have been given a wonderful guide to Calvin's Institutes. Anthony N. S. Lane, professor of historical theology and director of research at the London School of Theology, has written A Reader's Guide to Calvin's Institutes (Baker, 2008). Lane, a world-class Calvin scholar, gives the reader a streamlined introduction to Calvin. He divides the Institutes into thirty-two portions. The whole is covered in simple, clear language. Lane is a wonderful guide and understands both the subject (Calvin) and the subject matter (his theology). People on several sides of the debates about John Calvin all agree that this book is clearly the best such primer we have in print. It sells for $16.99 and is 176 pages in length. This book can be used personally or in the class room. I encourage you to get it.