Imagine yourself sitting in literature class, trying to read Virgil’s Aeneid. The difficult vocabulary, seemingly pointless side tangents, and unfamiliar cast of characters make your head swim. You read and re-read the same lines, with no idea about what is going on. Eventually, your eyes glaze over, and your mind wanders a million miles away.
Most of us have experienced this situation at one time or another. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many things we can do to help us not only read difficult books with comprehension, but even with enjoyment.
Learn about the book's background.
The first thing to do when studying difficult literature is learn as much as possible about the book’s background. Who was the author? When and why was it written? Did the original audience read it in book form, hear it as a recitation, or watch it as a play? Answering questions such as these can shed light on unfamiliar structure and content. For example, knowing that The Odyssey was most likely recited aloud by poets makes sense of the many repetitive phrases throughout the story. Knowing that The Aeneid was written to celebrate Rome’s glorious past explains some of the seemingly random side tangents. Information such as this makes sense of what we are reading, and helps us stay engaged with the text.
Engage your mind.
In fact, engaging our minds as much as possible is another strategy to approaching challenging books. There are many ways to do this. Whenever possible, underline, highlight, and take notes on the pages. Or, if you are using a borrowed book, use sticky notes to jot down ideas and mark important points. As you read, try to imagine what is going on. Create the scene in your mind. Fill it with as many details as you can. This will not only bring the story to life, but will help you to remember what you read later on.
Look up new words.
Another way to keep your attention on the reading is to look up difficult or new words as you read. I learned the importance of this practice when I first began reading Plutarch’s Lives. I had such a hard time staying focused, and it soon became clear that this was because of the number of unfamiliar vocabulary terms. So I downloaded a free dictionary app on my phone, and every time I came across a new word I looked it up right then and there. Pretty soon, finding unknown words in the text became almost fun, like a scavenger hunt. My focus sharpened, and my interest in the book soared.
Rise to the challenge.
Finding a way to become interested in the book you are reading is the most effective way to stay engaged. This is 100% about choosing a positive attitude. View the task as a challenge to rise up to, not a chore to suffer through. To help get yourself in this positive frame of mind, ask yourself questions such as, why am I studying this book, or why has this book been assigned to me to read? What can I gain from it? How does it connect to other things I’ve read or learned? How does it apply to my life today, or to our world today? By finding purpose in the reading, you will not only learn more, but will enjoy the book more.
It is true that reading hard books is, well, hard. But as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” Or, as the modern proverb puts it, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” Without a doubt, the rich rewards of studying challenging literature are worth the effort. By gaining background information, engaging our minds, and choosing a positive attitude, we can unlock the treasures of history, poetry, literature, culture, and theology found within the pages of even the hardest book.