How to Conquer Intimidating Books

They may be long, they may have been written more than a century ago, they may be known to be “difficult” – adequate reasons to be slightly intimidated by certain books. (But not all books! They are wonderful lovely things without which life would certainly be impossible!)

Books Intimidating2And there is a way of conquering the intimidating ones! And enjoying them, too! Using this method, I read Tolstoi, the Bronte sisters, D. H. Lawrence, Theodor Fontane, Henry James, David Forster Wallace, Simone de Beauvoir, and many more. But enough with the name-dropping.

Here’s how: pick a book you wish to truthfully boast about. Maybe don’t start with Ulysses before having read Dubliners, maybe read Anna Karenina before War and Peace. But be ambitious! Pick something that would be relevant for AP Lit or a literature major. Or really dense non-fiction.

And then take it with you on your next vacation/trip. That’s it. That’s the secret. Obviously, you have to sit down and read your selected tome, the bottom of your suitcase is not going to do that for you. But that’s all you need to do.

Let me explain: the thing with (supposedly) intimidating books is that you must get into them fast. Which means that when you start them, you need to read a large chunk in a short time to get truly engrossed. To find your way around the setting, to get the characters and their relationships straight, to want to know what happens next. Take Anna Karenina: my translation has almost 1000 pages, of course the action is not all in the first 50 pages. In fact, very little happens in the first 50 pages and Anna does not even appear. That’s why I advocate reading at least 100 pages/day when conquering intimidating books – it will feel like the action moves faster, and you get to know the characters more intimately if you spend more than just a few minutes before falling asleep with them. Which is why this method works so well for vacations, since vacation = time.

Many will disagree with me and claim that summer reading should be as lighthearted as possible, but as a dedicated reader, I must dissent: for many of us, vacation time is the only time we have enough headspace for challenging books – if it weren’t for ambitious summer reading, our copies would not be read at all. Why waste that chance on fluff?

Another advantage of vacations: fewer distractions. Imagine trying to read something complicated while sitting next to a shelf full of other books clamoring for your attention. You might pick up a rival, just to read a short story or two. And before you realize, several weeks have gone by without turning a page of your problem child. But since intimidating books are literally heavy, vacations tend to be a much more monogamous reading experience. (Obviously I have not tried this method using an e-reader. In this case, you’d need a WIFI-free vacation.)

Long train/plane/car rides are ideal: pack only the one intimidating book in your carryon and refrain from other on board entertainment. You will be forced to read, and to love what you are reading, because you’re pretending that there are no other options. By the time you arrive, your mind is part of the story and you never want to stop.

On the other hand, if you try to read the same book during everyday life, you probably cannot put in sufficient reading time to truly get sucked in. Say you read for 20 minutes every night before you go to bed. Say you read a page a minute – which is a generous estimate for many intimidating books, as they tend to come in pretty fine print. You’d read Anna Karenina in 50 days, probably longer due to the fine print and being too tired to read on some nights. Of course you are not going to get sucked in. Some pleasures are just not meant to be experienced in moderation. Let’s bingeread the classics!

Happy reading!

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30 thoughts on “How to Conquer Intimidating Books

  1. I’m really bad about reading the classics. I used to read them in high school and college, but it’s been years since I’ve read one. I almost don’t dare admit that. But there are so many contemporary books I want to dive into! So many books, so little time. Sigh.

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  2. Yes, you are so right about allowing time to get into a classic. Unlike a lot of modern books, they don’t jump into the action on page 1 … but it’s worth the wait! Many people tend not to think of the classics as pleasure reading. If it was assigned in high-school or if it’s on the reading list of a required class in college, it must be work, not pleasure. Fear of the classics may be related to the fact that we were forced to read them before we were ready to appreciate them, and before we had the life experience to fully comprehend them. Thanks for a well-written and thought-provoking post. So glad to have connected with you.

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  3. I love your approach, Sofia. It’s very hands-on and sensible, and I believe it can succeed. I agree that classics require a different type of dedication. I couldn’t do it on a holidays though, as my son is still young and in need of entertainment of the non-bookish variety 🙂 But I’ll be sure to give your advice a try in the years to come. Lovely post!

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  4. I’m playing catch-up with some blog posts that I’ve missed lately (work, illness, kids sports), so forgive the late entry! Have you read _The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction_? By an American prof, Alan Jacobs. He recommends following your Whim (capital W) and trusting your instincts as a reader. I try to give challenging books a fair go, but if they don’t resonate after several chaps, it’s on to something else. It was a big step to be able to them go unfinished, to liberate myself from the “shoulds”!

    Happy reading to you!

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  5. Recently, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Okay, it’s contemporary literature but ever bit as challenging as one of the older classics. I was so drawn into this novel and emotionally engaged in it, that when I reached the end, I almost suffered a bereavement and couldn’t settle to another novel for weeks after. Just none of them matched up to it in any way. They all seemed too lightweight and far less literary.

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  6. Thanks for visiting my site and commenting. I HAD to explore this post first as anything to do with books and reading draw me poste haste.
    Your advise is wonderful and I will adopt it. My mum introduced us to Shakespeare when young and would read a couple of chapters a night and pause to explain them. Needless to say, I fell in love with the bard’s works. I remember trying to concoct different scenarios to save Juliet from following the same fate as Romeo; crying over the Moor’s jealous rage and killing the lovely Desdemona; marvelling over Portia’s smart move in outwitting Shylock; send a whole hosts of other plots. I still marvel at the plot ideas that Shakespeare came up with all those years ago. Thanks for a though-provoking post.

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