Tips for Tackling Classic Novels

Monday, April 23, 2018
by Kate Stericker

old books on a shelf

For most of my life, I've been resistant to reading classic novels. Unless a book was assigned in class, it seemed pointless to spend my free time reading dense prose about the social calendars of 19th century British people when I could be reading YA novels about film-making lesbians solving mysteries or teens with tuberculosis falling in love at a quarantined boarding school. However, my girlfriend (who has much more patience with 500+ page counts than I do) recently convinced me to work through a long list of classics along with her. Surprisingly, I've found myself engaged by the books we’ve read so far and looking forward to the ones ahead. If you want to start checking off items on those countless online listicles about the classic novels you have to read before you die, here are some strategies that might make the process a little easier.

1. Partner (or team) up.

Reading a book in tandem with another person (or a larger reading group) makes all the difference when it comes to staying motivated. Not only is your partner likely to keep you accountable for making continuous progress on the novel you're exploring together, they can also make the process much more interesting by sharing their thoughts. Just as the best part of seeing a movie with a friend is discussing it afterwards, the best part of reading a classic novel with someone is swapping opinions on the prose, theories about the plot, and mean jokes at the expense of the author. Additionally, if you start to get confused or lost, your partner is there to explain their interpretation of the story and get you back on track.

2. Take advantage of online resources.

One advantage of reading classic novels in your leisure time is that, although you don’t have to deal with the academic pressure that comes with studying a book in class, you can still take advantage of all the resources that have been generated to help students. I recently worked my way through Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackerey’s 900-page satire on Victorian society. Every five chapters or so, I would visit and browse the short summaries of what I’d just read to ensure I hadn’t missed any important plot points. The summaries and analysis available online can be a great supplement to the text--not just for understanding the events of the book’s plot, but also as a way to fully appreciate the meaning and significance of the book itself.

3. Keep going!

The other day, my girlfriend observed that, as you read more classics, you start to notice interesting connections between them. For example, Vanity Fair, War and Peace, and Les Miserables all include scenes related to the Napoleonic Wars, although each work approaches these conflicts from a different angle. In more abstract terms, books written in the same era tend to comment on similar social conventions and prevailing ideologies, and it’s fascinating to analyze the commonalities and contrasts between these different perspectives. For this reason, the first classic is often the hardest--as you read more and more, you come to recognize patterns and references that regularly crop up and to develop an interest in repeated themes. Therefore, though it may seem counter-intuitive, the best strategy for making classics more readable may be to read more classics. 

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that classics are somehow more worthy of time and attention than contemporary novels--as much as I’m enjoying this classic-reading challenge, YA will always be my genre of choice. However, I know that plenty of people aspire to start absorbing the classics they’ve heard mentioned for decades but haven’t gotten around to reading. If you’re in this position, these techniques may help you achieve your goals. If you do decide to pick up a classic, enjoy it in whatever way works best for you!