Humor me for a moment, and mentally discard all those books that are, in your opinion, page-turners. Any reads that you find to be quick, easy, fun, fascinating, lovely, exciting, or otherwise engrossing are irrelevant to this discussion.
Next, add to that discard pile all those books that lack redeeming qualities, as far as you can tell. You’ve read a few pages and are bored senseless. And the book is not highly acclaimed by any reputable source. And you doubt you will learn or otherwise gain anything useful from it. These books are also irrelevant to our discussion.
What do we have left, once we toss aside the books that are a delight to read and the books we’re better off skipping? That’s right—difficult books that have value.
By now, you probably know me well enough to guess what I would advise you to do upon encountering such a book. (Hint: It doesn’t involve throwing anything across a room.) So I’ll skip the preachy lecture and proceed to the main discussion. What’s the best way to read a difficult book that has value—that has the capacity to teach you something or otherwise enhance your worldview?
1. Commit to a daily page count.
Since the only way to tackle a large project is to break it into manageable steps, I recommend setting a daily page count goal for yourself. Once you’ve decided on a goal, don’t think about how many hundreds of unread pages remain. Instead, focus on how many pages you plan to read today.
My usual goal is 40 pages per day. This is a loose goal. If one day I don’t read very much, the next day I try to exceed my goal amount. It’s also a loose goal in that I change it depending on the book. Books have different page sizes, font sizes, and reading difficulty levels. If it’s a denser or harder book than average, or if for another reason it takes me longer than usual to turn a page, I might make my daily goal 30 pages. If it takes me less time than usual to turn a page, I might make my daily goal 50 pages.
Forty pages per day is an ambitious goal for me. It’s hard to achieve, and I don’t always succeed; but I often do. It’s a good practice to aim high. Just remember to not only congratulate yourself on your achievements, but also cut yourself some slack if life gets in the way for a few days.
2. Skip the introduction, or read it afterward.
If the introduction was written by someone other than the author, do not read it first.* Once you’ve finished reading the actual book, you can, if you want, go back and read it; but this is optional. While introductions are often interesting and enlightening, they are supplementary material. They are commentary on the text itself—which is the main show.
Reading the introduction first can be a disheartening experience, one that may even cause you to abandon the book before making it to page 1! The introduction’s intended audience is a person who has already read the book and is curious about what someone else thought. Therefore, the introduction may mention scenes without explanations of what was going on, with the assumption that the reader has read them already and does not need such background information. If this isn’t the case, confusion is likely to result. The introduction may also include spoilers; and who needs those?
So why are introductions placed before the main text, if they are meant to be read after it? That’s a very good question! Like most everything in this world, it probably has to do with someone making money. When a publisher reissues an old classic, it tries to drum up excitement among potential buyers for a product that is, after all, passé by including a new, laudatory critique of the book, often by a famous author or someone with special expertise on the book. A person who has already read the book might buy it for the introduction. A person who hasn’t read the book might also buy it for the introduction; but even in that case, it not should be read before the main text.
3. Look up words and references you don’t understand.
Strike a balance between not looking up enough and looking up too much. Try to figure out which words are vital to understand, and which can safely be passed by. The danger of not looking up enough is that you might fail to understand what’s going on. The danger of looking up too much is that you might lose the flow of the reading, take so long that you start forgetting what happened earlier in the book, get lost in details and fail to grasp the big picture, or give up due to the tediousness of it all.
Your first step should be to guess what things mean based on context. If you don’t have a good guess, use your favorite search engine.
A couple decades ago, the main challenge was access to the information, as physical dictionaries and encyclopedias are bulky and heavy. Today, the main challenge is not getting sucked in to the Internet when you go there to look something up. Watch yourself while using your wifi-connected device!**
4. Avoid noise and disruption.
Everyone has different levels of tolerance as regards studying environments. For example, some people can study on a bus, while others find it too noisy and bumpy. However, everyone comprehends difficult texts better when outside stimuli and interruptions are reduced. If the book you’re reading is difficult, trying to read it in poor conditions will only result in frustration.
To avoid noise, obviously a quiet room is best. If that’s not possible, wear earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, or both.
To avoid disruption, (1) silence your phone; (2) pretend that the Internet exists only as a surrogate dictionary/encyclopedia, and that clicking to other sites or apps will shock you (like a dog collar, preventing one from crossing the line!); and (3) practice extreme antisociality (you might warn your family and friends beforehand!).
If all else fails, take your book to a quiet corner of the library, and don’t leave until you have reached your daily page count goal.
5. Keep pressing forward, even if you don’t understand.
Some people mistakenly believe that reading the first chapter over and over will improve comprehension. Rereading may improve memory, but it likely won’t improve comprehension very much, unless you do something different the second time around. For example, if you were just skimming or flipping through during the first read, rereading the section in a more serious or methodical way is likely to help. Or perhaps you didn’t look up essential terms, in which case rereading while looking up terms may help. Or perhaps you were trying to read in a noisy, disruptive environment; rereading in different circumstances may improve your understanding.
Generally speaking, though, it’s better to press on. If you keep reading, you are likely to catch on to what the author’s trying to do. In fact, many difficult books are supposed to feel confusing at first; a big part of their appeal is the challenge of figuring them out. Think of a difficult book as a jigsaw puzzle when you have lost the picture on the box lid. You wouldn’t put together a few pieces, and then take them apart and put them together again just because you didn’t understand how the entire picture would look. The clues to “getting” a book are often located deeper within. If you keep moving forward, you may surprise yourself. Your big breakthrough realization about chapter 1 may not occur until chapter 10. And that’s okay.
6. Eat and sleep.
The brain needs food and rest to function. The more hungry or tired you are, the less effective it will be in doing the complicated work of translating text to meaning. If you’re following the tips above but still aren’t getting it, grab a snack or take a nap, and try again. You will be amazed at how much more intelligible everything suddenly is.
7. Don’t give up.
This is the one that trips up the most people. So, make a commitment to yourself to finish the book, and diligently work toward your goal, until you achieve it.
Remember that finishing a high-quality book is a worthy goal, since many books don’t impart their fullest wisdom until you have made it to the end. And, nope, skipping to the end won’t work. You won’t acquire the wisdom unless you get there the hard way.
Best of luck with your reading endeavors. I know you will make it through that big one on your nightstand! With persistence, many things are possible.
*While I feel strongly about this, some people feel differently. To read arguments on both sides, check out the Keeping Up With the Penguins blog post Do You Read the Introduction First?
**Avoiding distraction in the Internet age is a large and important topic; see also my blog posts about the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.