Let’s own up. After all, it happens to everyone. Sometimes you start reading a book and it just feels like hard work. And when there’s a million really good books in the world (at last count) it seems like the best idea is to toss (gently!) that hard book aside and pick up something that’s more captivating.
Well, maybe. I’d suggest that’s the right approach when you’re reading something that’s not worth your time, because the book is badly written or is full of uninteresting characters or hackneyed plot situations. It might also be the right approach when the book is too close to the bone – I had to stop reading one recently about 50 pages in when it became too similar to a horrible experience someone I know had been living through.
But if the book is just hard, then how about keeping on? You’ve already tried that, you say? Okay, but let me give you some tips to make it easier. Here’s three categories of hard-to-read books, and how you can approach them.
Put It Down, Pick It Up
Is the book hard because it’s so large? Maybe you’re going to need to read it in chunks with gaps in between. A couple of years ago I started re-reading Vikram Seth’s massive 1000 page novel, A Suitable Boy. I’d loved it all those years ago when it first came out, and I wanted to enjoy it once more. Now, with most books, when you’re about 80 pages in you feel you’ve made a good start. You’re perhaps a quarter of the way through.
With A Suitable Boy, I was at about page 160 and I felt like I’d barely started. And with so many characters and plot-lines, nothing had become very well-developed yet. I put the book down and read something else. And something else. And so on. About three years later, I picked it up again, had a quick flick through those first 160 pages and then resumed reading. The book picked up almost at once, and I was hooked again.
Go Hunting For Gems
Is it a completely different sort of book than you normally read? You only read thrillers and someone’s insisted you read To Kill A Mockingbird? (And they’re right…) You read fiction of all sorts, but you’ve been given a biography of a politician for your birthday? Or… you’ve decided you needed to read more poetry.
That was what I decided a month or two ago. I’ve got a shelf of poetry, mainly classics with a smattering of modern stuff. I noticed an edition of Keats’s complete poems that I’d never even opened. It’s an old book with no contents or index to help you find your way around. You just had to plunge right in, and so I did.
Now, Keats was only active as a poet for a handful of years before his death. I knew some of his more famous poems (such as Ode on a Grecian Urn or La Belle Dame Sans Merci) but this book contained everything, and most of them were nowhere near as good. They were – to my mind – waffly, fixating on ornate descriptions of landscapes and flora. That was never what the poems were about, but it was what I had to wade through to get to the poems’ hearts. They were the medium Keats painted in, if you like.
Sonnets and other short poems weren’t too bad, but there were two works in particular that really dragged. One was a play called Otho the Great that was a cross between very sub-Shakespearean language and Victorian sentimental morality, in which none of the characters talked or acted like real people.
The other hard piece was a 100 page poem called Endymion, a story taken from Greek mythology that I’m struggling now to recall. There’s this guy who dreams about a beautiful girl, but he’s sure she’s real – as you do – so he spends 20 pages telling his sister about her then 20 pages following a butterfly or something and falls in love with at least two other women, one of whom is a goddess, before he finds out that one of them was the dream-girl he really loved all along, but in disguise. And is also a goddess.
Apparently Keats was so disappointed by the poor critical reception Endymion received that he stopped writing Hyperion, another long poem based on Greek mythology. But here’s the thing: I loved Hyperion! It starts off with the characters, not the landscape, and you’re plunged straight into a story rather than having to follow a butterfly to get to it. It had a real Percy Jackson feel to it, to be honest, rather than an obscure unfinished poem by a man dead two hundred years ago. I so wish he had continued with it. He did have a second crack at the story that didn’t even get as far as his first go, but it was still miles better than Endymion.
So that’s my lesson from reading Keats – when it’s something different than what you’re used to, just keep reading and you’ll find some gems. There will be dross amongst it, but it’s worth it for the gems.
The Bulldozer? Or Slow and Steady?
Category number three: is the book hard going because of the grim, tortured, agonising and painful story it tells? This blog post has its origins in my having two difficult books on the go simultaneously: the Keats collection and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Crime and Punishment is justifiably regarded as one of the absolute greats of literature (some even say it’s the greatest) but the two main words in the title are a clue as to why it’s hard to read. First of all, the character is planning a crime, and not a gentle bit of white-collar tax-dodging, but something particularly nasty (see picture below.) After he commits the crime, he undergoes the punishment. The tortured mind necessary to plan this crime is the toughest to read about. Dostoevsky does an amazing job of getting inside the mind of a man who’s weak enough to be blown from one whim to another, while keeping a key idea strongly front and centre within him.
There’s only two solutions to getting through something this traumatic. One is to just bulldoze your way through it. Put aside a weekend and do nothing else until you’ve finished it.
Or you could try what I’m doing – I just read one chapter at a time. This is working for me. I’m just over half-way now, and becoming hooked on the growing cast of characters and their interactions that form the backdrop to the antihero’s crime and punishment.
There’s just one other strange feature of this book I struggle with – a facet of Russian culture I was unaware of until now. Time after time in this book, people just bowl on into another person’s house as if it was a completely public space. Sometimes a whole crowd comes in to watch when it’s something exciting like a man dying. I’m unable to think of any Western equivalent – Dostoevsky’s contemporary Dickens doesn’t show this, from memory, but then an Englishman’s home is his castle.
Finally, is the book hard because it’s completely boring? It doesn’t have any redeeming features, nothing is happening, you’re not interested in the characters, its language is arcane, and nobody has ever said to you that it’s a book you really need to persist with because of the greatness you’ll find within? Well, unless you need to read it for a literature course or because you’ve promised your true love you will, I’d say this is the really rare exception to the rule: put this one down and walk away.
Try Keats and Dostoevsky instead.