6 Tips for that Hard-to-Read Classic

Classics are books that tell such wonderful stories.

I read tons of classics back when I was in school. But I’ve noticed, I don’t read as many any more. Because, let’s face it, classics tend to be harder to read. The language is often more difficult. They’re wordy. And long-winded.

When I do read a classic, I realize there’s a reason so many people love it. The writing is amazing. In fact, it’s why we still read these books hundreds of years after they were published. These books are worth reading. They are worth the effort.

Which is why I’ve decided to write a post to discuss 6 tips to help you read classics.

First, a short story. It involves two books: Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities. These books have been on my TBR for years. And as of this year, I have read them both… sort of.

About 20 years ago (has it been that long?) I managed to read about 3/4 of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. And, you know what? I don’t remember a thing about it. It was slow-going while I was reading it. My brain wandered as my eyes read each line. Chapter by chapter. I never really finished the book. And it’s has been sitting on my night table ever since.

So… How to finish a book like this?

The truth is, I’m going to have to start over.

I have found that I just need a plan of attack. Which is what I did most recently (and successfully) with the other book on my list: A Tale of Two Cities. (You can read my thoughts on this book here.)

I realize that I’ve used various tips throughout the years. Here is a compilation of 6 tips to try if you’re finding it hard to get through a classic:

Tip #1 – Listen to the Audiobook

I happen to love a good audiobook. Assuming it has a good reader, of course. I tend to prefer one reader as opposed to full cast recordings. It’s amazing what a really good reader (i.e. actor) is able to do with their voice. (This also works great for “re-reading” books. I’ve re-read such classics as Jane Eyre; all the books by Jane Austen; The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnAnne of Green Gables; etc. etc.)

Warning: Not all audiobooks are created equal. I have quit audiobooks because of the reader. This can be very expensive if you’re buying audiobooks. I get mine from the library. The only drawback of the library is that they don’t always have the audiobook you want.

Tip #2 – Audiobook + Physical Book

Okay, so this was a real break-through for me! This is how I read A Tale of Two Cities and it worked like wonders! I did a chapter or two at a time, sometimes more.

You’ll need a unabridged copy of the audiobook, plus an unabridged copy of the physical book. Then follow along as the audiobook plays. This really helps for concentration. You’re seeing and hearing!

Tip #3 – The Perks of Spark’s Notes

Now, no cheating here. Read the book!

But as you’re reading, check out a copy of Spark’s Notes (or similar). You can find them online. After finishing a chapter of the book, go to the corresponding section of Spark’s Notes. Read the summary and analysis.

Guess what? It’s like having a little mini professor give you insight into what you’ve just read… 

Tip #4 – Digest the Book in Small Chunks

Read the book in installments. Don’t try to rush things.

There’s no prize for speed reading! What I find, when I read a book too fast, I don’t remember or digest what I’ve read. Then, what’s the point? We read these classics to enjoy the story being told. Take advantage of that.

Tip #5 – Consider an Abridged Version

Let’s face it. There are some classic books that have a lot of verbiage that could be tightened up.

Years ago, I read an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. And I loved it. I got right to the meat of the story.

I also could have read an abridged version of Les Miserables. I didn’t, I could have. What I did read was the full book in all its glory. (Unabridged AND with annotations… Oh my!) But there were definitely a bunch of chapters that had nothing to do with the plot that could have been eliminated easily. Even Victor Hugo’s editor thought so… (I know this because I read the annotation for that!) Alas, M. Hugo wouldn’t listen to reason…

Tip #6 – Try a Graphic Novelization

So, I did this with The Scarlet Letter. (Another book I read years ago but had trouble remembering what the book was about.) The graphic novel version was beautiful! And it also clarified a few things quite nicely for me!

For me, personally, I don’t think I will do this too often. I have too much love for the written word. I like graphic novels well-enough, but when I read a graphic novel, I often want more WORDS! However, if you (or somebody you know) is a more visual learner, than I highly recommend this avenue.

This can also work if you use the graphic novel in tandem with reading the abridged/unabridged version of the book.

Okay, so what are some classics I still want to tackle?

  • Middlemarch // by George Elliot
  • Heart of Darkness // by Joseph Conrad
  • North and South // by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • My Antonia // by Willa Cather
  • Watership Down // by Richard Adams
  • The Man in the Iron Mask // by Alexandre Dumas
  • Agnes Grey // by Anne Bronte

And yes…

  • Ivanhoe // by Sir Walter Scott

What about you? Do you have any tips to add? Are there any classics on your TBR that you’d like to tackle? Let me know in the comments!

41 thoughts on “6 Tips for that Hard-to-Read Classic

  1. Just like now not all classics are alike. Middlemarch was long in the best sense. I loved the characters and the story. yet The Count of Monte Cristo was really tough for me to get through. I felt nothing for the characters and found the story unbelievable. My sister raves about the book though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I find I like most classics compared with the books being written today.

      I’ve realized that I rarely give out 5-star reviews. That’s because 5 stars means to me that “this book is utterly amazing!” This year, the only two books that got a 5-star rating from me… A Tale of Two Cities (a classic) and 84, Charing Cross Road (what I’d call a modern classic… having been written in the 1970s.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are all really good tips 🙂 Sparknotes and sometimes listening to the audiobook have both worked really well for me. I just finished North & South not long ago and starting on Cranford. I (mostly) like Gaskell’s style.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read Cranford a couple years ago. I get why you say you “mostly” like Gaskell’s style! There are some great moments in her work, but it’s not quite on the same level as say, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte.

      I am looking forward to North and South, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, love Judi Dench (Miss Mattie) in it and probably Dame Eileen Atkins (as sister Deborah) even better. They change a few things around, but I find they make it more enjoyable. One thing I liked was that it sort of helped visually explain some of the things I didn’t understand or glossed over in the book. This was because the language old and some of the significance escaped me.The sequel wasn’t quite as successful, unfortunately.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I definitely think that not all classics are created equally – there are some that are amazingly fast to get through and others that seem to take forever. I remember reading Little Women and it was taking me a long time to read, but only because it’s a long book and my copy had a very little font. lol. The book was fantastic and just up my alley. But then there are others that I dread picking up – I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea and it’s such a short book but it was soooo boring. I do love the idea of reading the book along with the audiobook – I’ve done that for Shakespeare plays with full-cast recordings and it works really well. And scheduling your reading is a good way to accomplish reading a book, too – saying you’ll read x chapters a week can help break it down a bit and make it seem less daunting. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure I have any tips to offer, barring one. As with any book, there has to be something there to hold you. A pre-existing interest? The genre? I remember reading nothing but ‘Classics’ for an entire year when I was in my twenties, but I only picked those that struck a cord. And yes, Ivanhoe was amongst. I zoomed through it. But then, I love that period of history. The only Classic to date that I’ve put aside only part read is Thackery’s Vanity Fair. Excellent for insomniacs! Good luck with your second attempt with Ivanhoe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read Vanity Fair in university. The only thing I remember is not liking Becky Sharpe! (But, hey, I remember her name and her personality quite clearly.)

      Oh, I also remember the puppet-scene from the book. Probably because my professor made a big deal about it with regards to Thackery and his two young daughters.

      I am hoping to tackle Ivanhoe this summer. I got to get into a medieval-reading mood first. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe it helped that I could remember a television adaptation from my young child days. And I kept coming across references. And place names cropped up when I was reading history. It got to the point when I just had to read the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you do too.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I’ve found when reading a classic that I need to set a goal for myself every time I pick up the book, for instance, I try to read about 20 pages every day to keep myself on top of it.
    I love your TBR list! I’ve read North and South, Agnes Grey, and My Antonia. North and South was a wonderful romance with some social commentary, and My Antonia was beautifully written. Agnes Grey on the other hand, I found a little bland. It wasn’t bad, but despite being only about 150 pages I couldn’t wait to be done with it.
    One of my absolute favorite classics is Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson. It’s somewhat like My Antonia in style and very dramatic. It also provides some interesting insight into America during the time period it’s set in.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post! I’m relieved I’m not the only one who finds it a struggle to read the classics [and I agree,–they are classics for a reason]. I wonder, too, why I seemed to eat them up when I was a teenager but struggle more now. It’s got to have something to do with the internet and a shorter attention span, I suspect.
    I used to read them just because they were old. But I feel life’s too short for that not to be discriminatory and now I read them based on if they sound personally interesting, just like I would any other book. No matter how long it takes me to get through it I keep at it. Sometimes the hard things are the best things to do.
    I think you will love Watership Down! I had a hard time putting that one down. 🙂 And North and South has such a strong, admirable heroine!
    Have you read any of Trollope? I am currently enjoying “Doctor Thorne,” #3 in Barchester Chronicles series. Those are long and wordy but great quotes and characters that make it interesting!
    I think movies can help motivate me to read– sometimes I watch the movie first and it was so good I was inspired to read the book for myself (Pride and Prejudice), and other times I want to watch the movie but make sure I read the book first (North and South– much better than the movie, by the way IMHO!).
    Some classics on my TBR:
    “The Man Without a Country,” by Edward Everett Hale
    “King Solomon’s Mines,” by H. Rider Haggard
    “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton
    “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” by Thornton Wilder
    “Gone with the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell
    PS- I have read both Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities. The former I really liked; the latter I did not. A decent film version needs to be made of both.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read Trollope’s Barchester Towers in university. I don’t remember loving it and I’ve never been drawn to read anything else by him. But, maybe I should give it another go.

      I actually really like the movie idea! They can help you understand the story, especially with a faithful adaptation. You do have spoilers, though. So, sometimes I like to wait and watch the movie AFTER I read the book. For me, I’ve seen the North and South movie, and that’s when I realized I want to read the book!

      I read Gone with the Wind in high school. Love that story. Love the movie. Although, I really wouldn’t want to be friends with Scarlett O’Hara in real life!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You should definitely give Trollope ‘another go’! I am usually a stickler for reading in chronological order. However, in this case I picked up the second book first for some reason (Barchester Towers) and I’m actually glad I did. I have decided not to go back and read #1 (“The Warden) because it doesn’t sound that interesting to me, and besides I’d already found out what happened by reading Book 2. So, now I’m on to Book #3! I have seen film versions of 1&2 (fun), and am excited about a new version of “Doctor Thorne” (3) having just been made.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Me again. 🙂 Lists also help me keep on reading (all kinds of books). I just love list-compiling, I guess. I also use the goodreads feature that lets you mark which page you’re on so you can see the percentage process. So satisfying!
    And then I have this ritual where before I begin a book, I figure out which is the exact middle page of it and mark it. Then when I reach that goal, I reward myself by checking out the next book I am going to read so I have that to look forward to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a neat tool that I haven’t tried yet. I could see how it would make you want to read just to get the percentage up 😉

      And what a cool little ritual about the exact middle page! I love it.


  8. I know I’m late, but I love this post! The Sparksnote tip is exactly what I’ve been doing to tackle my classics! I’ll read a chapter, and then read the summary to ensure I didn’t miss anything. It helps so much, that after a while it wasn’t necessary anymore. I had this shame associated with this method because it felt like I was, “cheating,” but obviously there are no rules in reading for pleasure!

    Thanks for sharing 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Yeah, I can see why it felt a little like it’s cheating. I’ve had that thought myself. I’ve come to see it as a mini-lecture. As long as I’m not substituting the Sparks Notes for the actual text. I enjoy reading insights to what I’ve just read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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