How to Read Old Books

While I, and many others, agree that reading the classics is a valuable and maybe necessary activity for learned people to engage in, I’ll also be the first to admit that it can be a challenging activity, too.

This is especially true if you are someone who didn’t grow up reading the classics; maybe you enjoy reading but have just decided to venture into older books. Or maybe you have tried to read classics before and just couldn’t “get” them.

If you do find them challenging, never fear! Since language changes over time, any older works are going to look different. Our way of using words and even of writing sentences has changed and also – sadly – dramatically simplified. This makes reading works older than roughly 100 years have a little bit of a learning curve. The good news is the more you do it, the easier it gets!

As a high school English teacher, I spend a lot of time explaining how to approach a classic work, and thought I’d share some pro tips here. Although my students don’t always take me up on my advice, I can say that a lot of what follows is personal experience, and really does work:

  • Start Small  Tackling Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Dickens’s Bleak House is probably not the best place to start. While great reads, these door-stoppers just take a while to read, and the sprawling narrative and numerous characters can be hard to keep track of if you’re just entering the classical lit realm. Instead, pick something slim(mer) at first. That way, you can build confidence and dip your toe in the water.
    • Recommendation: Elizabeth Gaskell Cranford
  • Start Late  If you haven’t read a lot of classics, Shakespeare might not be the place to begin! Start with a writer from the 1800s or early 1900s. His or her writing will be closer to our contemporary language, and therefore easier to read.
    • Recommendation: F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
  • Pick Something Interesting (Unless you’re in a class and don’t have a choice). This tip may sound obvious, but so many of us still labor under the idea that there are books you “must” read. Not true! For instance, I’m just not a fan of Wuthering Heights, so although I have read it for classes, I don’t foresee picking it back up. If you like romance, read something by Jane Austen; if you like social drama read Dickens; if you like fantasy try George MacDonald or the Brothers Grimm or H.G. Wells.
  • Read a Summary/Watch the Movie I know, I know, it feels like cheating. Let me free you: it’s only cheating if that’s all you do, and then pretend that you’ve read the book. Sometimes it can be helpful to see the film version first, or read a summary if there isn’t a film adaptation, to figure out who all the characters are and what’s happening. I did this with a lot of Jane Austen’s novels when I was a teen and it helped tremendously. Obviously, if you’re one of those people who just will not read the book once you’ve figured out what happened, this might not help you.
  • Remember it Will Take Longer I sometimes get frustrated that I can’t finish that Dickens novel I’m reading as quickly as an equal-length YA novel. The truth is that classic works just take longer to read; those more complex language patterns mean you have to slow down. Savor it!
  •  Edition Matters When you start out, I’d recommend springing for one of the slightly more expensive editions that has good notes (like Oxford or Penguin classics editions) and use them! If you haven’t read a lot of classic literature, there are often cultural references that are important but just go over our heads; the notes explain these. Sometimes they’ll also explain what the author means when he or she says something unclear. This is SUPER helpful. Eventually you’ll learn the seventy nine different words for carriage and that muslin is an inexpensive lightweight kind of cotton and need the notes less, but it’s helpful at the beginning.
  • Try Audio or E-Books Hearing those complex language patterns is easier than reading them, and it will also help you read them more easily (crazy, right?). Also, listening totally counts! A lot of times classic works are available as audio downloads for free or just a few dollars. I like doing Amazon’s Whispersync with my classics, and switching between listening in the car and reading on my phone or Kindle.
  • If You Don’t Like it, Stop  Did I just tell you to quit reading a book? Yes. This is important, and there is a caveat – maybe I’ll make it another point:
  • Know When to Stop For instance, I’ve found that it takes about 200 pages (or 1/4 the novel) of a long Dickens novel for me to get hooked on the story. Now, if I had quit reading before I reached that point, I would have missed out on a couple of my favorite books. So give yourself about 1/4 of the book and then, if you’re just not into it, try a different book (this is also key. Don’t just write off all classic literature because you found Tom Sawyer annoying!)
  • Find People to Read With Most older literature was written with the understanding that people would read aloud together and talk about it later; it’s meant to be a communal experience. There are so many layers to a good classic novel, and it can make your reading that much more fun if you can unpack those layers with a friend or two.
  • Practice Makes Perfect The more classic books you read, the easier it will get to read them. The older works, like Shakespeare, will become more accessible. The newer works, like Dickens, will seem downright easy. The key is to keep reading until you get to that point.
  • Have fun! Classic literature has lasted for a reason; these books present vibrant, lively stories and people that will make your life richer. Too often we make reading classics into a chore or an elitist thing, despite the fact that may of these books were just as popular and populist in their time as Game of Thrones is today!



One thought on “How to Read Old Books

  1. Pingback: Edition Matters – With the Classics

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