Bookworm confession: as a teen reader, I was less-than-enthusiastic about the books my English teacher put in front of me. Because I was a conscientious student, I read the assigned books anyway—but too often they seemed opaque, and I wonder how much went over my head when I read those books back then. Or, which books I missed out on because they weren’t included in the curriculum.
That’s why one of the prompts for the 2020 Reading Challenge is to “read a classic you didn’t read in high school.”
I’ve sometimes felt pressure to read classic literature in order to prove myself a serious reader or to check off my list of “books to read before you die.” But the truth is, you don’t have to read classic literature to call yourself a bookworm. Picking up a classic can be a rewarding, enjoyable endeavor, but they’re not the only route to being an avid reader. That’s why classic books make up just one item on this reading challenge list.
The definition of a “classic book” is up to you here, but I tend to think of classics as books that were published over 50 years ago—though you’ll often hear me use the phrase “modern classic” about more recent releases—and remain in our literary consciousness. From Jane Austen to James Baldwin, classic books have staying power because of timeless themes, great writing, or an important place in pop culture.
If you want to tackle a classic novel this season—particularly an older classic with tricky, outdated language to navigate—these are my tried-and-true tips to get more out of your reading experience:
My favorite reading practices for classic books
1. Immerse yourself in context
One of the trickiest parts of reading a classic, whether it was written in ancient times, the 1760s, or the 1960s, is encountering outdated language and unfamiliar settings. Familiarity with the customs, historical events, and social structures of the time helps me comprehend what’s happening in a story, even if I’m struggling with the language. For example, just a little bit of background knowledge on entailment and Regency-era etiquette illuminates key plot points in Pride and Prejudice and makes Austen’s humor and social commentary shine.
You don’t need to spend three days researching before you read a classic (but if that brings you joy, I’m cheering you on!). Most editions of the classics feature introductory essays from scholars or modern authors that summarize important context, share author background information, and connect the novel to today’s world. Don’t skip these excellent resources!
If you encounter an unusual word or unfamiliar event, go to Google. (I don’t like to have my phone nearby when reading, so I write my questions on a sticky note for later.)
2. Go ahead, use Sparknotes!
I promise, it’s allowed. As long as you’re not using it to plagiarize an essay, Sparknotes is a great resource for comprehending classic literature. Choose your own adventure based on what you want to get out of your classic reading experience:
- Review the character list and descriptions before you start reading. If it’s especially long and complicated, print it out or write a list of characters on your bookmark to help you keep track of them as you read.
- Read the plot summary before you tackle a classic so that you can enjoy the language as you read, rather than wonder what’s happening.
- If you want to retain the element of surprise, alternate your reading with Sparknotes chapter summaries. Either read the book first and then the summary, or vice versa, depending on what works best for you.
- After reading, visit the themes, symbols, and other analysis sections to see what you missed or what you want to discuss with a fellow bookworm.
3. Practice annotating (if you want to)
In addition to writing my questions on sticky notes or keeping a character list handy, I love to write in my books—especially my classics. I underline confusing passages, highlight beautiful imagery and metaphors, and place book darts on memorable pages. For me, the simple act of putting pencil (or highlighter) to paper helps me retain what I’m reading. It also helps me go back and find important passages that I want to discuss in book club or share over a cup of coffee with a bookish friend.
Annotating shouldn’t feel like homework (unless you really like homework). Mark what interests you or sparks your curiosity, not what you feel like you should write down.
4. Absorb the audiobook
Audiobooks are perhaps my favorite way to experience a classic novel. Hearing older language helps me comprehend it better than reading on the page. Plus, skillful narrators give classic characters LIFE! I never would have enjoyed Anna Karenina on the page as much as I did listening to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s narration—or understood Zora Neale Hurston’s humor and dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God without listening to it.
A recommendation: celebrity narrators make for fun listening experiences. Juliet Stevenson will always be my favorite narrator for the classics.
5. Watch a movie
Check out the movie version of your classic—really! Of course, some movie adaptations ring truer to the book than others. But overall, movie adaptations help us see the story, the time period, and the characters. When our 21st century minds get stuck on the tricky older language, hearing and seeing the words roll off an actor’s tongue can make all the difference for understanding and enjoyment.
This is especially true for works like Shakespeare’s plays, which are meant to be performed, not read on the page. Or for our beloved Austen adaptations, where actors’ facial expressions bring a lot of subtext to life.
6. Read with a friend
Let’s be honest. Some classics can be slow and difficult to get into. Partnering up with a friend to read, discuss, or hold each other accountable can be a fun way to motivate you to tackle that classic on your shelf. Not only do you get the external push to turn the pages—you also get the benefit of two different minds approaching the same story. Your friend might notice something you missed, or she might happen to be an expert on an obscure 16th century custom (you never know!).
If you’re in need of bookish community, consider this an invitation to join us in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club where we’re learning to read better, together. Over summer, several members enjoyed reading and learning about Emma by Jane Austen. Right now, we have a group of members reading Jane Eyre together. We’d love to discuss books (classic or otherwise) with you.
I’d love to hear your tips for reading classic literature in the comments. Plus, if you’re participating in the reading challenge, please share which classic you decided to read!
PS: Still deciding which classic to read this year? Check out these 25 classics that aren’t remotely boring, plus 10 comforting classics to read when you run out of Jane Austen novels.