I’ve never read Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. I’ve never read What’s So Amazing about Grace, by Philip Yancey, or Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Many people, over the years, have mentioned these books offhandedly as tomes that every person ought to read.
But I haven’t. Because they seem difficult to me.
Moby Dick seems difficult because I know it contains long, boring descriptions of whaling ships. What’s So Amazing about Grace seems like it would be a book with lots of theology and not very many stories. With Hamlet, or anything else by Shakespeare, I get bogged down by the outdated language.
Still, I expect that someday, I will read all three of those books, after a fashion. Because I think that reading difficult books is a skill I can improve. Everyone’s process of learning to read difficult books will be different, but here are eight tips I’ve learned over the years:
1: Change your expectations: Read For Learning, Not to Impress
Even if you can’t get everything out of a book, it’s better to get something out of it than nothing.
Many of us are embarrassed to say that we read an abridged version of a book, or that we skimmed a book, or that we read a blog post that summed up the main idea of a book. But if you do these things, you’re still getting something out of the author’s work, even if you’re not getting everything out of it.
And if it sticks with you, you might go back and read it more thoroughly later.
(But in my opinion nonfiction books are often stuffed with so much filler that you can get everything you need from just skimming. Time-saver too.)
2: When learning to read classics, start with the easier ones
The first classic I ever read was The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain. I started it trepidatiously, sure that the century-old writing would trip me up. But when I managed to get all the way through it, I was jubilant. I could read old books! A whole new world of reading was opened up for me.
The thing is, not all old books are created equal. Reading something from 100 years ago is much much easier than reading something from 400 years ago. Books that were originally written for children are often easier to get through than those originally written for adults. Shorter books are less daunting. And something with a really fun premise, like The Prince and the Pauper, where a prince and a pauper who look exactly alike get accidentally mixed up, is much easier to get through than something like Middlemarch, by George Elliot, which is about a normal village of normal people doing normal things.
The trick is, once you’ve read enough books like The Prince and the Pauper, you’ll be much more familiar with old books, and you’ll be able to read and appreciate books like Middlemarch too.
3: Give it a try. It’s okay to not finish the first time.
I tried reading Hamlet once, and I couldn’t get through it. But I’ve never even cracked open What’s So Amazing About Grace. Maybe it’s much more interesting and full of stories than I imagine it will be. And I’ve never tried to read Moby Dick, although I did read the first paragraph at a used bookstore once. The first paragraph was actually quite interesting. Maybe the whaling ship descriptions wouldn’t be so bad after all.
It’s a good idea to try reading the first few pages, maybe even the first few chapters, of books that seem difficult. Maybe you won’t finish them, and that’s okay. Maybe you’ll come back and read it at a later date, and maybe you won’t. But maybe the story will grip you, and you’ll finish a book that you thought was beyond you.
You never know, so you might as well try.
4: Keep ploughing on. It will often make more sense later.
I don’t recommend always forcing yourself to finish what you start. However, sometimes if you plough on ahead, it does get better.
For instance, when I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, I was so confused about what was going on. There was some sort of betrayal plot, but I couldn’t follow it.
However, as I ploughed ahead, I found I could still follow the main plot. All I needed to know was that the main character, Edmond Dantès, was unjustly imprisoned and trying to get revenge on the men who betrayed him. I didn’t actually need to understand the details to enjoy the book.
If you plough ahead, you’ll be surprised with how much you end up actually understanding. Especially with nonfiction/theology stuff. It may seem confusing at first, but often these books have several main points that they explain again and again in different ways, so if you don’t get it the first time, it will make more sense the second or third time.
5: Practice the art of reflection
The first thing I do after reading a classic is look up its Wikipedia page and read the plot summary, just in case I missed any of the big plot points. Then, I’ll read multiple blog posts about the book. If my sister has read the same book, I’ll sit on her bedroom floor and discuss it with her.
These articles and conversations make me think more deeply about the book, so I ultimately get more out of it. And they often clear up any lingering questions I still have.
6: Leave your phone in another room, unless you have fantastic self-control
It’s really hard to concentrate on a difficult book when you’re constantly checking your phone. It pulls you out of the world of the book and makes it that much harder to figure out what’s going on.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is leave your phone in a different room. Sometimes, leaving it on the other end of the room will do. And sometimes, you can keep it beside you on silent. (Any beeps or vibrations will make concentration difficult as well.) It all depends on your level of self control. If you find yourself checking your phone a lot, put it further away from you.
If you have excellent self-control, a phone next to you can be really handy for quickly looking up confusing words and concepts. But if you find yourself checking Instagram before you dive back into the book, your phone is harming more than helping. Across the room it goes again.
6: Make sure you read fun books too
I learn a lot through reading, but only because I think reading is fun. And I only think reading is fun because I read a lot of fun books.
In my opinion, reading is not intended to be a chore. Reading difficult books will become easier and easier the more you do it, but in the meantime, make sure you read fun stuff too. Whether it’s comic books, adventure memoirs, or lighthearted teen romances, make time to read the things that are fun and delightful to you. If your brain is in “reading is fun!” mode, the difficult books will be easier to digest.
8: Sometimes there is an easier process
You don’t always have to dust off the ancient tome and plough through. Sometimes there is an easier process, and we should take advantage of this.
First of all, some people are auditory learners, and have a much easier time with an audio book than a physical copy. If that is you, by all means, listen to the audio book. (This is also a good tip if you don’t have time to read, but do a lot of driving or cleaning or any other task that allows you to listen as you work.)
With Shakespeare in particular, I’m a big fan of watching his plays instead of trying to read them. Why on earth do we bother? No one brags about reading Hamilton for instance, because it’s written as a play and meant to be watched. The same goes for all of Shakespeare’s works. They were written as plays, not books, and they are much easier to follow and more enjoyable as plays.
Finally, if you’re tackling something like War and Peace that was originally written in another language, pay attention to what translation you get. You can use Google to find out what translations are out there, and which are most popular. In general, getting a good, more modern translation can fundamentally change your reading experience from one of torture to one of dear enjoyment.
Overall, reading difficult books gets easier the more you do it. With time, you’ll learn the tricks that work best for you. Which is fantastic, because there’s a whole world of interesting stories and life-changing ideas out there for the taking, hidden away in difficult books.