Remember that quote from Francis Bacon, Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested ?
Classic novels definitely fall in the ‘chewed and digested’ category. They take time to read, have plenty of subtext and often need an understanding of context and background to be fully appreciated.
That said, if one does persevere, it is a rewarding experience giving one a glimpse of a different time, a different perspective, whole different writing styles.
If you’re new at this and want to read classics but have despaired of ever getting through one, here’s help. We’re sharing a few pointers which will ease your reading journey.
1. Slow down
That’s the first thing you’ll need to do. If you’re chasing a Goodreads target or hurrying to tick another book off your list, it won’t work. Reading a classic is an immersive experience. Be prepared to make time for it.
When I decided to actively add classics to my reading list, I brought down my Goodreads target from 50 to 20. I managed to read more since I wasn’t reading only classics, but I needed to take off the pressure.
2. Invest in a new edition
The next thing you need to do is to order a new edition. I cannot stress this enough. You might be tempted to pick up an old well-thumbed book that once belonged to your mother or father. Don’t. The brittle yellowed pages are hard to get through.
Newer editions often have a better print — larger and clearer with a brighter, cleaner background — making them easier to read. Also, they often come with enlightening introductions, but more on that later. The good news is they aren’t too expensive.
If you’re comfortable reading on the kindle that works fine too. Also, you’ll find plenty of free-of-cost digital editions of classics on sites like Project Gutenberg.
3. Start small
Diving right into a 1200 page War and Peace might not be the best idea. Not only will you leave the book mid-way it might also put you off classics completely. Pick shorter books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway to ease yourself into the world of classics.
4. Read up about the book
Context is more important for a classic than it is for any other book. Read up about it. Since they’ve been out there for decades lots has been written about them so there really isn’t much to be said about spoilers.
Books like The Great Gatsby (set in the American Jazz Age) and Gone With the Wind (set during the American Civil War) become much more interesting when you know the background of the narrative. It gives depth and perspective that you would otherwise lose out on.
Sometimes the author’s life and background add colour to the story while some books are driven by the politics of the time.
So read the synopsis, read Wikipedia, read about the author. Read before, during and after you’re through with the book. Read Spark Notes, Cliff Notes and whatever other notes you can find. Read the introductions. They often provide great insights not just to the narrative, but also to the author and the writing style. That’ll make your reading experience richer.
5. Watch the film
Though I suggest you do it after you read the book only to give form to your imagination and to enhance your reading experience. And be prepared to take it with a pinch of salt.
6. Buddy Read
Like for most things in life, a friend makes things fun. So if you can find a buddy, reading becomes easier. Or join a book club that reads classics. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird and then later Orwell’s 1984 and Steinbeck’s East of Eden with friends. Every few days we’d catch up on a call or on WhatsApp and exchange notes. We’d point out things the other had missed, or share quotes that had moved us. That helped us going through the tough bits.
The action heats up only after a few pages in some books, so persevere. Don’t give up right away. That’s not to say you’ll love every single classic you pick up. If after fifty or hundred pages, you don’t begin to enjoy the book, let it go. There really are too many books (classics or not) out there and you’ll certainly find some that appeal to you.
Also, sometimes it helps to put a book away and get back to it later, when one is older and (hopefully) wiser, more patient or simply in a different state of mind.
4 Replies to “Seven easy tips to help you read a classic novel”
It’s a very interesting article. Every point makes sense. I have read Gone With the Wind (and Scarlett, the sequel). But I couldn’t finish Wuthering Heights. Tried twice, and I really wanted to read it but I simply didn’t get it. Kaun, kya, kisse, kiske baare mein keh raha hai and all that . Also, To Kill a…I might try it again.
Also, I wonder if we try too hard (keeping so many things in mind) to read a book, do we really want to read it? I mean, for me, reading should be effortless. Just a thought…
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I agree, partly. Ideally, books should be easy to consume. However, not all of them will be. Older books will have very different writing styles from what we are used to, and hence might not be easy reads. If we don’t read any of them we lose out on so much valuable literature, right? Though I do agree, some of them can be prohibitive. For instance, I’ve been wanting to read Shakespeare Twelfth Night in the original but am not able to muster the courage to do so. One day perhaps I will :-).
Great points, Tulika. I got to read a lot of classics when I did my MA Lit (for fun). But I would be quite lost if it was not for the commentaries to provide context and setting, that made it so much easier to understand and appreciate the writing.
Excellent tips, Tulika. Particularly about slowing down. You need to make time to enjoy the classics.