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.

Conclusion

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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36 thoughts on “How to Approach Reading a Classic

  1. _tirilu says:

    I love this post! ❤ I don't have that many troubles with reading them but lately I'm not motivated to read any and I think this guide is really helpful! Maybe I will try and take a different approach to them.
    I also like that you say that you don't have to like them. I appreciate many classics but I still cannot get over Moby Dick for example. Man, that book is boring. 🙂
    I have another tip though – check out the different editions of the classic you wanna read before you buy it. Some are easier digestible than others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I find myself unmotivated to read classics, as well. Sometimes it just depends on the classic! I’ve been in the middle of one for months because I’m a least a hundred pages in and nothing has happened! It’s probably not going to be a favorite of mine.

      Also, yes to the editions! I know the Dover thrift editions can be popular for the price, but I like to spend more and go for something like Penguin or an Oxford University Press edition so I can have the intro and the footnotes.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think that can actually be a great way to do it! That’s pretty much how we read modern books, right? There’s not really anyone there to explain the book to us. We’re just enjoying the experience!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Books Teacup and Reviews says:

        Yes, exactly! At first I thought classics must be really hard English, like a higher level That might be difficult to understand for me as it’s my third language but once I started reading them and made myself to read and understand what’s being said, I realised it’s not hard but rich English.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. alisoninbookland says:

    Great advice!

    I’d like to add: try it as an audiobook. I’m listening to Sense & Sensibility right now and feel like I’m getting a lot more out of it than when I read some of her books in the past.

    Also use Cliffsnotes/Sparknotes if available. I read a few books in the past by reading a chapter of the book & then skimming through the notes on my phone for the chapter. It just helped clarify what I read. Sometimes I just needed a scene spelled out plainly, without flowery language.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I love the audiobook idea! I think that works particularly well for drama, too. Shakespeare on audio is a much different experience than Shakespeare on the page.

      And, yes to the Cliffnotes/Sparknotes. They can have a bad reputation, but there’s nothing wrong with having someone explain what’s happening. That can make it easier to go back, reread, and suddenly “get it.”

      Like

  3. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    Great advice, especially around not expecting to understand everything at once. I would possibly add looking for a classic within a genre you enjoy as a startingpoint, IE Fantasy, Crime, Comedy, Litfic etc. There are certainly classics out there to suit everyone’s preferences.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think a goal sounds really helpful! It’s nice to have that extra encouragement to branch out and try something new every now and then. I might not always like the books I tried, but, at least I tried, right?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    Ironically, I read the introduction last because sometimes, it spoils the book :p

    But on the other hand, when it comes to complicated texts (i.e. those doorstoppers with loads of characters), I find Wikipedia summaries to be very helpful in keeping track of who is who and what is going on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      That’s actually a good point! Sometimes I read a major plot spoiler in an introduction and I get kind of upset!

      I like the Wikipedia idea, too! Why do all the work if someone has already done it for you?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Zezee says:

    I highly agree on reading the intro and the foreword and all that stuff. They really come in handy for me sometimes by giving more context. Sometimes they do spoil the story by giving away a major plot twist, so sometimes I’ll read half the intro, start the book and then read the other half during or after reading.

    Like

  6. Bibliosini says:

    This post in incredibly helpful! I tend to skip the introduction most times and just check up stuff online, like SparkNotes or whatnot. But I should give the intros a bit more effort and see how it helps! Thanks a lot for this helpful post!

    Like

  7. Molly's Book Nook says:

    I love this. I don’t read a lot of classics because I find them intimidating. So tips like this are actually super helpful! Thank you 🙂

    Like

  8. Linda I PagesandPapers says:

    These are great tips! I usually browse the internet for accessible summaries/analysis for a start. There are so many free sources that are really helpful–even for university students (even my professor once recommended checking out SprakNotes haha).

    Like

  9. Michael J. Miller says:

    Ahhhhh, the endnotes/footnotes! When I was younger I almost always skipped over them. In fact, I’d look at a book with lots of endnotes as being a quicker read as I could just skip those pages! But now I often spend as much time highlighting and annotating the notes as I do the text itself. And, when I do, I often smile and think of how much fun, exciting, brilliant knowledge Past Michael was missing out on. That poor kid…he had no idea!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I actually used to read all the endnotes and footnotes growing up and I got really offended when a librarian told me they “didn’t count” when reading the book. I decided she didn’t understand the importance of endnotes and proceeded to ignore her. XD

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Good for you! I love Past Krysta’s knowledge-oriented rebellion. And also, what the heck librarian?!!? You should be a purveyor, facilitator, and shepherd of knowledge!

        Sometimes I think of all the information I missed in books I read before I discovered the value of endnotes and footnotes. For some books I really love I’ve gone back to them specifically to read the endnotes and footnotes!

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I don’t know what the librarian was thinking, unless she thought most kids wouldn’t read the endnotes and she was trying to make me feel better about it or something. I think adults do at times tend to assume all kids are reluctant readers or not capable of reading at a higher level, which really isn’t true. You have to go case by case with your recommendations. But I still think of this librarian and her bad advice years later!

          I love that you’ve gone back to read the endnotes! Sometimes I think it’s fun to read different editions of something like Shakespeare and get the different endnotes from the different editors. XD

          Like

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