How to read a difficult novel

You’re stuck with a difficult novel, either because you wish to improve yourself or because your university or school requires you to read it? Follow these tips to get to grips with it!

When reading classical literature, it’s often the casethat a particular text may feel impenetrable. The language may be old-fashioned, the syntax complex, or it may be particularly heavy onrhetorical devices which might make it difficult for you to understand. Perhapseven the subject matter feels completely remote and boring to you.

The thing is, you know that you probably should read them, or if not, they’re almost always part of the required reading at school or university. Whether Joyce’s Ulysses, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Woolf’sMrs Dalloway, you’re sure to struggle at some point in your life.

But it needn’t be that way. We’ve all been there, and chances are you’ll always stumble across another difficult novel at some point in your life after you’ve completed the one you’re currently brooding over.With the right tips, however, you can at least ensure that you understand mostof it – and perhaps even find it enjoyable.

Prepare the reading

A lot of the authors who wrote the ‘classics’ we read lived in very different times and in very different circumstances. Having but a basic understanding of the cultural context of your novel is therefore very important and may give you a leeway into the novel. Read up on the author on Wikipedia ordo some research on his or her ‘school’ of literature. Historical context is also very important. Knowing a little bit about the psychological aftermath of WWI before tackling Mrs Dalloway, forinstance, can go a long way.

Most importantly, however, read up on the novel itself. Things such as its publication date, its background, how the ideas came about, what the novel’s themes are, can all help. If you don’t mind spoilers too much you might even wish to read a brief synopsis, enabling you to know roughly what’s going on while reading. I probably needn’t mention that this is not a replacement for actually reading it.

Don’t look up every word you don’t understand

Although it may seem counterintuitive to understanding a difficult text, do try to avoid looking up each and every word you don’t understand. It severely breaks the flow of your reading process and may end updemotivating you until you give up. Instead, try to gather its meaning from thecontext of the text, or else just skip it – chances are it’s not that importantin the long run anyway.

However, do look up words which are important – such as when they’re mentioned several times throughout the novel, for instance. If you skip one which turns out to be important later, you can always return to it. But the main thing is to keep yourself motivated and keep going – on firstreading you’re trying to get the wider picture, not the minor details.

Mark important passages

Use either a text marker or, if you don’t want to ruin the book, place small bookmarks (sticky notes are ideal) throughout the novel at locations you wish to reread either because you think they’re important or because you just enjoy them. Even the most difficult classic usually contains at least some passages which speak to you or amuse you and which are well worth re-reading.

That way you’ll also gather a sense of the scope of the book and remember where what happened and when – aside from starting to determine some passages which may be useful in an essay later on. Appreciate the novel for what it is and do this as often as necessary – or as often as you see fit.

Try not to skim the text

Unlike individual words, which you should feel free to skip when necessary, try to avoid doing the same for larger chunks of text. Novels build up, after all, and chances are you’ll want to retain everything to make sure you’re keeping up with the plot, characters, and the underlying subject matter. Skimming the texts means that you risk of missing the juicy bits.

Of course, you may find this difficult at first, especially if you read a particularly difficult text or if you don’t usually read classical novels. If it helps, try doing short bits at one point at a time and then return back after a short break of a few minutes. Nobody will kill you for taking your time with a difficult novel, and if you’re at school chances are you’ll have plenty of time anyway for each text.

it is a particularly difficult text or if you’re not used to reading classical novels. If it helps, try doing short bits at one point at a time and then return back after a short break of a few minutes. Nobody will kill you for taking your time with a difficult novel, and if you’re at school chances are you’ll have plenty of time anyway for each text.

Try to enjoy it

Last – and most important – try to enjoy the text. Treat it like you would any other novel. After all, as works of art they’re primarily meant to be enjoyed, in some form or other. Don’t worry too much about analysing it when reading it for the first time, but just try to flow with the sound of the words, the imagery and the plotline – as a timeless classic, it’s most likely full to the brim with great stuff.

The primary reason you may find yourself not enjoying a novel is because of the archaic language. Even novels written in the early 20thcentury can feel very foreign to us now. But if you stick with it and read it at your leisure – while maintaining an open mind – chances are you’ll grow used to the language and enjoy the novel consequently. What’s even better: the more often you practice, the more likely it is you’ll relish the next novel even more.

Closing thoughts

Of course, there’s never a guarantee you’ll like a novel, even if you do manage to understand everything. It may just not be to your personal taste in terms of writing, or the plot may be too far from your personal experiences for it to speak to you in any way. But by following these tips, you’ll at least have the means at your disposal to approach it.

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