I used to think that reading challenging books was not for me. Then, last December, I finally read Jane Eyre. It was one of my favorite reads of 2017, but it took me more than a month to finish. I know there are many people out there who wouldn’t consider Jane Eyre a challenging read, but I found that even though I loved it, I couldn’t read it for long stretches. I used to think this was because I just wasn’t smart enough, or I didn’t have the patience to read anything published pre–20th century. Maybe I was just too used to a more modern writing style. Or maybe because I didn’t finish college, and so never read any “classics” in a classroom context, my brain was just never trained for reading challenging books.
No, no, no, no, no.
Reading Jane Eyre taught me an important lesson: I can read any damn book I want, no matter how challenging, as long as I read it in tiny chunks. Reading a book slowly, five or ten or 20 pages at a time, does not make me a bad reader. It makes me a reader.
I was so inspired by this revelation that I decided to turn 20 pages a day into a philosophy for reading hard books, and make a project out of it. So began my 2018 reading project: Reading the Classics, 20 Pages a Day.
For the purposes of this project, I’ve chosen to define “classic” as any book published at least 50 years ago, that—for any reason—is challenging for me to read. This could be because of an older and/or unfamiliar writing style, difficult subject matter, length, intellectual complexity, experimental form, etc. If it’s a book that requires work and commitment to finish, it counts.
In January, I read To the Lighthouse. I’m currently working my way through Anna Karenina. A few other titles at the top of my challenging reads TBR include Middlemarch, The Souls of Black Folk, The Iliad, and Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley.
I know it’s only February, but I am so into this project. Here are five tips for reading (and enjoying!) challenging books:
1. Take small bites
If you’re the sort of person who can read 80 pages of Anna Karenina in one sitting, all the power to you. If, like me, you’re the sort of person who inevitably falls asleep after 30 pages, no matter how much you’re enjoying the story—don’t panic! You can still read challenging books. I aim to read 20 pages a day of whatever classic I’m currently tackling. Some days I get caught up in the story and end up reading 35 pages. Sometimes I only manage to read five. The key is to set a finite goal. This can be pages, minutes, chapters—whatever works for you. Even if your goal is just ten pages or 15 minutes a day, that’s awesome. Pick a goal that’s realistic and not too much of a stretch to stick to.
2. Read other books
The main reason I’ve read so few older and more challenging books is that I used to only read one book at a time. So I’d start a book like Moby-Dick, eventually end up frustrated it was taking me so long, and abandon it for something else. Now, my challenge book is just one of the several books I’m reading. Who cares if it takes me five months to read Moby-Dick? I never feel stuck because I’m reading lots of easier, quicker, more instantly gratifying books at the same time.
3. Read your challenge book every day
While I occasionally miss a day, I’ve learned that keeping the momentum going is much more important than meeting my daily goal. If I skip a day, it easily becomes two, then three, then a week, and suddenly I’ve lost the thread of the story. So when I’m really busy or engrossed in another book, and I know I’ll never be able to get through 20 pages, I just read two pages. As long as I keep reading even a few pages a day, the book eventually pulls me back in. It might end up taking a long time to finish, but that hardly matters. This is not a race.
4. Read your challenge book first
Whenever I can, I try to get my challenge reading done before I pick up a different book. If I put it off until the end of the day, I’m usually too tired to actually engage with it. Whenever your first block of reading is in your day, use that to do your challenge reading. This won’t work for everyone’s schedule (and it doesn’t always work for mine), but when it does, it helps me keep reading those hard books consistently.
5. Take breaks
When I started this project, I liked the idea of always having a challenge book going. But sometimes life gets busy, and reading those 20 pages of Anna Karenina means I don’t have time to read anything else. So, while keeping the momentum is important, I’m not too hard on myself if I miss a day every now and again. And when I finish a challenge book, I don’t start a new one immediately. I take a few weeks or a few months off. Then I pick up a new classic, refreshed and ready to dive in again.