It doesn’t matter how many books you read or how proficient you are in the various trends of literary history, everyone gets a little apprehensive when it comes to reading a book deemed to be ‘difficult’. Be it due to the monstrous length of the novel, its unconventional stylistic choices or its emotionally draining subject matter, sometimes our favourite hobby can feel more like crime than a simple pleasure.
We should always be challenging ourselves as readers. It can often be an enriching and rewarding experience. It doesn’t need to feel like homework. That copy of Ulysses you bought on a whim or the e-book of Infinite Jest haunting your Kindle, wondering why you haven’t fulfilled that New Year’s resolution to read it can be finished and you can enjoy working your way through those seemingly endless pages.
Partially inspired by a lecturer I had, as well as my own adventures into certain novels (ah, the entire school of modernism), I’ve compiled a list of simple tips on how to be victorious in the realm of reading difficult books.
Don’t panic. Seems a bit patronising to say this but seriously, don’t panic. It’s only a book. It won’t attack you in your sleep. Ultimately, you read for fun, to learn, you become a more interesting person, to understand the world around you, and subvert expectations. Very few of us read to fulfil some kind of masochistic tendencies (although if you’d read some of the books I’ve reviewed, you may be accused of that).
Pick the right book. Maybe Proust isn’t the best first step. It’s not always about length, but going for that notorious 200 page book over that notorious 800 page book can at least ease you into the process. Pick a genre you enjoy or have some past experience with. Make sure it’s something you actually want to read rather than something you feel like you have to read.
Find the right place to read and be comfortable. Pick the corner of your favourite couch, or curl up under the blanket, or sit up with your back straight at a desk covered in notes. Put on some music or block out all noise. Head out to a favourite coffee shop. Pour yourself a glass of wine or keep the kettle boiled. Whatever your ideal conditions are for reading, replicate or get as close to them as possible.
Pick the right format. Sometimes the sheer sight of all those pages can be too daunting for some readers, so if you’re such a person, perhaps it’d be best to go with an e-book format. Then again, it can be very rewarding to see that physical page count dwindle with each passing chapter. Whatever one feels more comfortable to you will be the right choice, and can make the experience just that much easier.
Don’t set yourself a deadline. Unless you’re studying a book for class, there’s no need to force yourself to complete it in an allotted time. Telling yourself that you can totally read 100 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow a day is one thing; doing it is quite another. The stress of forcing yourself to meet a daily set amount of pages can smother the experience, and there’s no point in doing this if you’re not getting any enjoyment from it.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you know someone who’s read the book, ask them some questions. If there’s a word you just don’t recognise, quickly google it or look it up in a dictionary. If something catches your eye that you don’t quite understand, take a note of if or scribble something in the margins (obviously, only do this if you own the copy. We at Bibliodaze will not be held responsible for library vandalism). It’s okay for you not to get every reference or turn of phrase, and there’s no need to do a ton of pre-reading prep, unless you feel it would help. Personally, reading Virginia Woolf became a far easier experience (although ‘easy’ is never the right word for Woolf) after reading up on Modernism and her life, and now Orlando is one of my favourite books.
It’s okay to take breaks. Once again, this isn’t punishment, it’s supposed to be a pleasurable and rewarding experience. If it’s become a touch overwhelming or even annoying, step away for a few hours or even a day or two, but try not to extend the break beyond that. Just as much as you need to pace yourself, you also need to have enough motivation to jump back in the saddle less you let the book fall by the wayside.
We hope this helps. Feel free to share the difficult books you’ve been meaning to read. As for me, I’ve got some Pynchon to tackle, not to mention A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Modernism may one day end me.