How to Read Difficult Books: Developing a Discipline

My students write a paper every semester about their most difficult reading so far in college, and what they think are good tips for how to read difficult books. These range from scandalous topic matters to dense, stream-of-consciousness prose to complex scientific jargon, but every time, I’m reminded: there is something valuable in being able to sit with a book.

To sit with a book sounds odd, like you are taking it out to dinner, but that isn’t at all what I mean. Sitting with means recognizing that something is too difficult, too painful, or too confusing, but refusing to leave the experience. It takes discipline to do this, and practice. It also takes motivation, which many people don’t find themselves possessing when they encounter a tough read.

I recently read about a professor who is teaching a 7-hour-long class on Tuesday nights. The goal is to read for 5 hours, discuss and write, all in the same experience. The Professor has had a lot of interest, perhaps from people who have either forgotten or never learned how to deal with boredom and confusion when reading something difficult. He says that there is a positive impact of having nothing but reading and spacing out to do.

I have a tendency to believe him. Right now, more than any other time in history, there is something entertaining to do at any moment. If your difficult textbook is making you annoyed, you can take a break to scroll through a social media feed and get a jolt of positive feeling. There is little incentive to continue reading articles on the internet that do not instantly and constantly entertain; after all, there’s probably a video about the same topic, or another topic to move on to.

Our current reading culture allows us to skim along the surface of many topics. Surely, Rioters have an uncommon ability to desire and commit to books, but even those books may be the ones we naturally are drawn to, not the tough stuff that may change our worldview entirely.

I propose a few different strategies for teaching oneself to get through difficult reads, and I hope that some of them are useful as you tackle those topics and texts that are likely to impact your life.

Find a way to restrict access to distraction

This isn’t just about leaving a group of chattering friends; it’s about proactively getting rid of the things that most regularly keep you from reading. This means trying something like Forest App for your phone, which helps you avoid aimless phone time. It means finding plug-ins that restrict the internet while you are supposed to be reading. It also means having an honest conversation about whether music, reading in bed, or other habits are conducive to your best self.

Give yourself free space to express

Many people who are reading tough books don’t necessarily want to be taking notes as well, but having blank space, be it post-it notes or a notebook, to journal about what you are experiencing is invaluable. Why? So many difficult reads are actually supposed to prompt you to get off topic, to think something you never would have thought on your own. This is a great time to get your ideas out.

Expect a long reading time, and prepare your body

If you know you want to tackle that tough read, make sure you find a comfortable chair when you are reading! No reason to ignore the great philosophical truths of the universe because your chair makes your back hurt. It also doesn’t hurt to stretch, get some exercise, and eat well: yes, it seems silly to “train” for difficult reading, but when you feel poorly, you read more poorly than you would have otherwise. All bodily distress is still distraction.

Find someone to talk to about it

Reading is a nice solitary action that we often turn to for pleasure, but when reading isn’t quite so fun and simple it can switch from pleasant solitude to actual loneliness. Try to find someone else who wants to try to get a lot of meaning from a difficult book at the same time as you—don’t necessarily read “together,” but find time to share how it is going with each other.

The real rule for how to read difficult books

The biggest trick for how to read difficult books is to not give up: giving up is a strategic thing to do when encountering a book you no longer want to read, but giving up on every difficult book really means you might be missing out on the best parts of those books. If someone you really respect recommends a book that seems insanely dull and confusing, give yourself a requirement to try it out, push through to the end, and pay attention to the feeling of accomplishment at the end. Maybe this feeling can crowd out some of those other, more surface-level entertainments long enough to help you read difficult books in the future.

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