Let’s talk about classic novels. Despite being an English major, I don’t enjoy them as much as I would like to. Many of my fellow classmates feel the same, but even after reading through my fair share of them, I haven’t grown any fonder of them. And while I resent taking part in literary snobbery, I will admit that classic novels are important, so it would probably be beneficial to read a few in your lifetime.
But why are they important? Classics are classics for a reason — their value has withstood the test of time. They contain themes that are still relevant to today and examine history through a more human and emotional lense. That’s not to say that I don’t think some classic novels are boring and hard to understand, because some of them are. Even Mark Twain said that classics are “a book which people praise and don’t read.”
But I think there’s merit in engaging with things we don’t like. We don’t have to enjoy classic novels, or even agree with the message they’re trying to convey. That’s the beauty of literature — everything is subjective. Opinions vary and no matter how much we liked or hated a book, we can still learn something from it.
That doesn’t change the fact that classics are hard to read. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that make reading them slightly less painful.
Tip 1: Read the inside or back cover.
Most people know this already, but this is where a short summary of the book is located. Don’t fly into this blind. You literally can’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes the plot isn’t so obvious, so having even a small idea of what the book is about before reading will reduce a lot of frustration later on. Take “To Kill a Mockingbird” for example, which doesn’t give any hints to the themes just from the title. Know what you’re getting yourself into so you can keep it in mind while reading.
Tip 2: Read the table of contents.
As it turns out, it actually has a purpose. The table of contents will act as your guide when you have no earthly idea of what’s going on. Have you been reading for so long that the words are blending together? Do you even remember what chapter you’re on? Refer back to the table of contents. It’ll tell you exactly where you are and where you need to be.
Tip 3: Read a summary of each chapter.
Yes, I’m telling you to go to Sparknotes and read the handy little chapter summaries. I hesitate to suggest this because this is usually where most students stop (I’m very guilty of this) but trust me, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the content that actually matters if you only use Sparknotes and skip the book altogether. Read the summary before reading the chapter so that you have a firm grasp of what’s going on in the plot behind all the symbolic language and wordsmithing. This way you can divert more attention to actually trying to understand the symbolic language and wordsmithing (the most important parts).
Tip 4: Make a reading schedule.
Set goals for yourself, such as “I’m going to read one chapter a day” or “I’m going to read 30 pages by the end of the week.” Setting goals is the fastest way to get through a book you really don’t want to read. Set a pace that’s comfortable for you, and you may find that with each goal you achieve, the more motivated you are to continue. It took me a month to read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and by the end, I was so excited to get the book over with that I inadvertently doubled my pace. Also, if reading the book is an assignment for class, your future self will thank you for not leaving it for the last minute.
Tip 5: Annotate.
If you don’t recognize a word or are having trouble understanding a certain passage, make a note of it. It can be easy to fall into a sort of lull when reading, and because of that I often find myself having to reread the same paragraph over and over. Annotating is a great way to deliberately interact with classics and will enhance your recall of the text, so no more having to go back and read the same sentence for the fifth time. If you’re unsure of how to start, an easy jumping off point is asking yourself what is the significance of the title, and what was the author’s intention behind it? This will become more evident as you read, and you’re basically tricking yourself into analyzing the text now instead of struggling to do it afterward.
Tip 6: Form or join a book club.
If you want to read a classic novel on your own time, try to find some friends who will read it with you! Some of us (myself included) struggle with holding ourselves accountable. By reading with friends, you can motivate each other to reach your reading goals and take a little bit of the pressure off. Book clubs are also a great way to learn new perspectives. Classic novels are meant to be heavily interpreted, and different people will have different experiences and perspectives to bring to the table. The more knowledge you gain, the more beneficial classic novels will be for you.
Tip 7: Use alternative reading methods.
Does the thought of sitting down to read a very long and very boring book give you hives? Audiobooks might be the way to go. Some people find that staring at the same page for too long leads to stress and frustration, which is never what you want when trying to read a classic. With audiobooks you can sit back and relax as the narrator tells you a story. It’s also a blessing for people with visual impairments or dyslexia. However, this method comes with a couple downsides. Audiobooks are often advertised as a great way to multitask while reading but for classic novels multitasking can be detrimental as your focus will be split. You also won’t be able to annotate. A quick fix for both of these problems is to read along with the narrator, or use some sort of speech-to-text program to dictate your thoughts. Audiobooks can help strengthen your critical listening skills and attention span, so if these are things you would like to work on, give audiobooks a try. Just make sure you’re paying attention!
With these tips, you can bamboozle your friends and professors into thinking you’re cultured and refined with your extensive knowledge of classic literature. But more importantly, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of classic novels. So go on and read as many classics as your heart desires. (Just maybe not “The Catcher in the Rye”).