How to Approach Reading a Classic

How to Read the Classics

Interested in reading more classics but a little intimidated? Here a few strategies you can try to make reading classics easier!

Read the Introduction

Skipping all the “boring” forewords and introductions might seem like the best way to jump into a book without getting bogged down by too much information that you are not even sure you care about. The introductory material usually, however, provides valuable knowledge that will help you understand what you are about to read. It should provide information about the author and their cultural and historical context, as well as information about how the book has been received and interpreted, and notes about significant passages, themes, and questions for you to be looking for. Doing this extra work at the start will make reading the actual book easier later on.

Do Some Research

If your edition does not have a good introduction, feel free to do some quick research online! All you really need is a short overview to get you situated. Do not worry about scholarly journals or anything like that. An encyclopedic entry noting the time period, significant influences on the work, and notable themes is a good start. If you later find yourself intrigued, feel free to keep on researching!

Check Out the Table of Contents

Looking at the Table of Contents will give you a visual guide to the journey you are about to embark on. It will allow you to mentally prepare yourself for what is ahead and even to organize how you want to proceed. For instance, you might decide to read a chapter a day. Or to finish Part I by a certain date. Even if you just decide to read what you are able, without setting goals, looking at the Table of Contents gives you more context about the book in general, which will help you feel more comfortable once you dive in.

Pay Attention to Footnotes and Endnotes

Ignoring footnotes and endnotes can be tempting, but they are there to help you! Some, of course, might not be of as much interest to you, if they are referring to a source or providing information for further research. Some, however, will explain obscure or arcane words, or provide cultural and historical context, so you will suddenly understand how arriving in a certain carriage indicates social class, or sending an invitation in a certain way could actually be construed as an insult. Without these notes, the story may be harder to understand. So doing apparently more work (reading extra) will actually make reading easier in the end.

Mark It Up!

If you own the book, don’t be afraid to annotate! If you look up a word in the dictionary, write the definition on the page. If you notice an allusion or learn something about the cultural context, jot that down, too. Writing the information down will help you remember it, and it will also make your reread a little easier!

Don’t Stress

If you do not understand everything at once, don’t worry about it! Even the best of readers do not understand everything the first time around (or many times around!). You might find you have to reread a passage several times. Or you have to look up what it means. Or maybe you just want to move on, go with the flow, and hope things become clearer to you as you progress. Whatever you decide is okay, if it works for you! In the end, just being able to complete the book will give you a sense of accomplishment. And the next time you read it, it will seem even easier.

Don’t Think You Have to Like or Even Appreciate the Book

So you finished the book! Congratulations! But you hated it. Not to worry. Knowing a book is a “classic” can make readers feel obligated to like it or find something good about it, lest they be accused of being uncultured. The fact is, however, that classic books are just books–that were published in the past. Most people do not like every book written today, so there is no reason to suppose most people would like every book written in the past. Classics come in all genres, age ranges, writing styles, time periods, and more. So if you didn’t like the classic you just read, there may still be another one out there for you to love.


Sometimes reading a classic book can seem like a lot of work. All the introductions and forewords and prefaces and endnotes and footnotes can seem overwhelming. However, most of this information is provided to help orient readers in a time, place, and even language that may not be familiar to them. Approach the work slowly and take what helpful bits you can from the editorial material. Doing this extra reading will pay off in the end. And if you still don’t understand it? That’s okay! Even the best of readers do not understand everything. Keep on trying and your skills will improve!

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