How to Read (and Finish) a Difficult Book

Not all books are created equal. While most books are worthwhile, some are obviously much easier to read than others. For example: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights are both, in my opinion, incredible books. But Neverwhere is arguably easier to understand than Brontë’s classic. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is approximately the same length as Anna Karenina, but King’s JFK novel took me three days to read, whereas Anna Karenina is going on eight months (on and off).

Over the years, I have had to read some difficult or dry books. Some I ended up loving, some I didn’t care for, but all presented a struggle. I will admit that, sometimes, I read as little as I could get away with, never finishing books like Great Expectations or Emma. And sometimes, I turned to sites like Sparknotes, familiarizing myself enough to get by in class. But, in reading these difficult books, I have developed a few strategies for finishing.

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1984, chapter one

Strategy number one: If you get tired of reading, try the audiobook. If that doesn’t work, try listening to the audiobook while reading the physical book (or ebook, whatever). You are much less likely to get distracted.

My senior year in college, I took a class on 19th-Century British Literature. Sounds fun, right? The class started off great. I fell in love with H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I bullshitted my way through Austen, Dickens, and Eliot, and barely made it through The Picture of Dorian Grey. And then came Wuthering Heights. I was a few chapters in when the temptation to give up struck me. But for some reason, I refused. I had finished and enjoyed Jane Eyre in high school. I was determined to read this book. A few hours of procrastination had resulted in a free podcast reading of the novel (this was before I discovered Audible), but it only took a few minutes for me to get distracted. Inspiration struck. I read the novel while listening to the audiobook. Yes, it was much slower. But I understood it. And the combination of visual and aural stimuli was magical, forcing me to focus. I finished the novel in three days, and it felt wonderful.

Strategy number two: Put the book down and walk away. But don’t forget it’s there.

I started reading 1984 last February. When I began, I was much more excited about the prospect of having read the novel than I was about the book itself. In other words, I wanted to say I’d read it and know what it was about, but didn’t really feel like putting energy into actually reading it. I probably read about thirty pages before I decided I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t know about you, but I have to be in the mood for certain books, or my brain just can’t focus. 1984 sat at the bottom of my purse until August. I picked it up again, fell in love, and finished it within a week. The same thing happened (though over the course of only a month or two) with American Gods by Neil Gaiman. And with Beowulf, though it literally took me a full eight years and multiple attempts to finish it. And I had to pick up Anna Karenina three or four separate times before I really got into it. Believe me, you’ll appreciate any book all the more if you’re actually in the right mood or mindset to read it, so don’t be afraid to put it off.

Strategy number three: Just keep reading.

“Duh,” I know. This might sound like pretty obvious advice, but I know how hard it is to follow. So regardless whether you chose strategy one or two or neither, just keep reading. This does not necessarily mean sticking to one book. I’m in the habit of reading two or three books at a time, usually of different genres. When I start to get bored with one book, I can move to another for a change of scenery. This works especially well in tandem with strategy two. Rereading Harry Potter might feel like a break from Paradise Lost, but you’re still reading. Your mind is still working, and you’re maintaining that momentum. Of course, this also applies to a single book. Because usually, it gets better. Your mind will start to adjust to the convoluted language that is giving you difficulty, or the book will actually start to get interesting. Just keep reading. It will pay off, I promise.

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