How to read difficult books

Rabih Alameddine, An unnecessary womanThere was a quote I really wanted to use in my review last week of Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman, but I couldn’t find a place to fit it in. Sometimes reviews take off in a direction and they just can’t be reined in, I’ve found! This quote is, however, too good not to share – at least, I think so.

The quote occurs when Aailya, our unnecessary woman, is talking about reading philosophy. The quote in question refers to her attempt to read and understand Schopenauer. She says that “I can’t seriously claim I ever grasped much of Schopenhauer on that first reading, or the second, but I kept trying”. And then she describes her method:

In philosophy, I was a page-turner long before I was a reader. I worried the surface till I penetrated the essence.

I think this is great advice for reading anything that’s a bit challenging, not just philosophy. Once upon a time I would try to understand each sentence of works that challenged me, and become frustrated when meaning eluded me. However, now my practice is to keep reading, because very often doing this will result in my gradually working my way into the author’s style (words, images, rhythm, tone) and world-view (ideas, themes). In other words, I think what I do is worry the surface until I penetrate the essence – though I must admit that I tend not to give books multiple chances. I (mostly) do need to achieve this some time during the first read. Anyhow, once I’ve cottoned on to what the author is doing I’ll go back to the beginning – if I need to – to catch what I’ve missed.

Do you have any hints for reading the more difficult books that come your way?

50 thoughts on “How to read difficult books

    • Thanks Umashankar. I suspect many keen readers do do this subconsciously to varying degrees, but it’s probably liberating to make it a conscious decision?

      Ah, Marilynne Robinson. I have a story there. I started reading Gilead once for an internet reading group, and was really enjoying it, but I lost it mid-read and didn’t find it for months by which time the reading group had long past. I plan to get back to it one day, because I was loving its tone. You like her?

  1. I sometimes find the opening chapter does not make sense until read a second time, often after the book has been completed. The second read can be most enlightening.

    • Thanks Barbara. That’s a good point. And then, often, I go back to the opening few paragraphs when I’ve finished the book and that can help confirm for me what the book was about, even though it didn’t seem to mean much when I started the book.

  2. The perfect quotation for today, the publication anniversary of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Just read it, I reckon, and since most authors know what they’re doing, the pieces eventually fall into place.

      • It’s also perfect for the book I’m reading at the moment, it’s called The Beat of the Pendulum and the author Catherine Chidgey calls it a found novel. I’ve tried to convey what it’s like in the post on my blog, but really, it’s the cacophony of words and sounds that bombard us every day, in the media, with family, from the TV, radio and even the Navman. It’s just brilliant, but yes, you just have to let yourself go and follow the flow and hope that it will make sense eventually.

  3. I think that with Joyce, or with other ‘difficult’ literary writers, page turning always comes first because the sound of the words is important and meaning only comes with second and subsequent readings. With philosophy I work hard to understand what I’m reading, I disagree with Aailya. I will go backwards and forwards over a para until I get it or I give up. Skimming philosophy is just reading for the sake of ticking it off a list.

    • I agree with you re the sound being important in many of these “difficult” writers, Bill.

      That’s a fair point re philosophy, though Aailya does talk about multiple readings, so maybe with each reading you are skimming less and less. I’d have to be keen to do that though. However, Aailya, unlike us, spends pretty much all her time along at home. Her books are her life so I guess she has time for multiple reading!

    • Oh, that’s great. I did know that they are companion volumes. My reading group has her on our schedule suggestions list, but so far she hasn’t got up. By hook or by crook I will read her one day.

  4. Interesting discussion. I agree with going along for a while until ‘the penny drops’, then trotting back along the path to pick up any other coins that have fallen. However, there is a line, isn’t there? Some books can just end up being too hard. I think this is where I do rely on reviews somewhat – and, more specifically, reviews from people I feel I can trust. When I know something about the reviewer, I can often tell if a work is worth putting in the hard work. For example, a reviewer might be known to me to be comparatively ‘high-brow’ so if they write that a particular work is difficult, then I am happy to accept that it will be beyond me and I’ll read something else instead.

    • Yes, fair point Karenlee, there is a line I agree. And I also agree that reviewers help in this regard. As you say you have to know the reviewer a bit, to know whether you are likely to align with their perspective, but then they can save you time can’t they?

  5. This reminds me of my Grade 1 teacher who old me, when I went to her to ask what a word meant, to just keep reading and I’d figure it out … which is probably how we learn most of the words in our vocabulary! And probably the same goes for difficult books (though I wouldn’t be brave enough to take on Lisa’s reading of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’).

    • Yes, you’re right Anna. That is often how we work out the meaning of words isn’t it? Particularly, too, the fact that words have nuances! Thanks for reminding me of that practice.

  6. Yes, I noticed that line in the book and am glad you’ve started this discussion. I agree that it is great advice for reading something challenging because there is hope that even if we don’t really understand it in the beginning, through repeated readings and more life experiences maybe we’ll come nearer to understanding what we think is the “essence”. Aliyah’s struggles to decipher and convey the true meaning of her translations into Arabic brings this idea to mind.

    • Thanks Carolyn. I love that you noticed it too. And good point regarding her struggle to convey real meaning through her translations. I loved the discussion of translation in the book.

  7. There are lots of reasons a sentence or a paragraph might be difficult – vocabulary, syntax, ideas, context – whatever. You bet I need to read and reread just teasing that meaning out. And sometimes I read the whole novel more than once – more than twice! There are often layers of meaning to be dealt with – one layer on first reading and another when it’s done again. I think it’s the only way I know of approaching difficult material whether it be novels or poetry or even news articles.

    • Thanks Bekah. I agree that re-reading can expose whole new meanings of books, new layers as you say.

      And you are right, there’s a bunch of reasons why something seems hard to read. I wish I had (could make) more time to reread to get more meanings from tricky books.

  8. My advice is don’t fret over a difficult book: just come back to it 30 years (or more or less) later and things that were difficult then make sense. Whether it is life experience or reading experience it doesn’t matter – after all there are many, many great books just waiting to be read, (or even re-read) enjoyed and learned from meantime.

    But like Karenlee I, too, find it helpful to read a review or two of a book I am struggling with but really want to read Now.

    • Good point Lithe Lianas. Not every book has to be read now – and some, as you say, do make sense when you read it at a different time in your life. Thanks for making that point too.

  9. This is such an interesting topic. I struggle between methods. Sometimes I try to grasp everything sentence of a difficult work. At other times I also just keep reading. Sometimes just plowing ahead gets me really lost though.

    As for difficult works in general. I try not read commentary or criticism of the work but until I am finished and thought about the work myself. But if something is really difficult, I make an exception. Sometimes, outside commentary helps me to get it.

    • Thanks Brian – and thanks for your very practical response. I think this struggle is probably what many of us do in fact. Sometimes ploughing ahead, as you say, doesn’t work.

      And, I’m the same about commentary. I want to work out the meaning of what I read for myself – but I have made exceptions as you describe. Sometimes I do it if I have an idea and fear Im way off the mark, too.

  10. I love discussing these topics with you. In my ESL teaching days, I’d seen students so frustrated by the ambiguity of the English language to the point of giving up. And many of them would have a dictionary with them, checking up every single new word. I know exactly how they felt, for I myself had long been an ESL learner. And this is what I’d learned: grasping the meaning by simply reading on, skimming over ambiguities, ignoring words I didn’t know (and at times there could be many) and just went through the whole thing first. This continues to be my reading ‘method’. Often the contextual clues can explain things and I don’t need to know every single word to go on or to enjoy. Not just philosophy, but everything I read. Thanks for sharing this, WG!

    • So do I, so thanks Arti, I’m glad you do too. Thanks for adding that ESL experience. It’s the same issue of course, isn’t it, that us, managing something that’s difficult to read. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of reading in an unfamiliar language. My husband reads books in German. He does tend to look up the dictionary a bit, but I think he also uses context and reads on.

  11. It’s interesting that umashankar raises Marilynne Robinson’s fiction – presumably because he finds it difficult, or it is generally considered difficult? I have never found it so. But I’ve been disappointed when I’ve put her books on reading lists for various groups that I’ve run over the years. I remember one participant complaining that ‘nothing happens’. I think we sometimes have false expectations when we start reading and this can be a barrier to our understanding.

    • Thanks Dorothy. Yes, I wondered about that too. It’s the “nothing happens” issue that I’ve mostly heard about her books, not the language itself,. But I’ve only read about one third of Gilead for the reasons I gave so wasn’t sure I could ask that.

  12. I sometimes find that changing location/environment for a difficult book can help me make more sense of it. Moving to a louder/quieter/more outdoor/more indoor area. If the book references a lot of classical music, putting some of the pieces on to play. Trying the book in a different season. Engaging some of the different senses can make a lot of difference!

    • That’s a fascinating idea Angharad. I hadn’t really thought of that. I’ve thought that sometimes it’s just not the right time for me – I’m tired or distracted, etc – but I hadn’t thought of changing the physical situation in which I’m reading. Thanks. I’ll be interested to see if others have tried this.

  13. Hi Sue, if at first you don’t succeed you try again – later. I think reading ‘trusted’ reviews is a good way to keep you returning to a book you found difficult. I gave up on Richard Flanagan’s novel Gould’s book of Fish, but have now reread it several times because it is one of my favourite books. I love Marilynne Robinson books, they are slow moving but the characters and stories are always thought provoking.

    • I love that you went back to Gould’s book and now love it Meg. I think it’s a great book – I loved the voice – and often think I’d like to read it again. So many books I’d like to read again.

      As for Marilynne Robinson, I so want to finish Gilead. I’ll have to start again I think – though I can still remember its start and the tone.

  14. Pingback: Doing things with theory | The Slow Academic

  15. This is great advice. Sometimes it takes me many years to finally get to that essence but often it is worth it. Last summer I finally made it through John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which was first recommended to me by a reading friend after its publication, more than twenty years prior. (OWEN TALKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. IT IS BEYOND-TIRESOME.) A few hundred pages into the story but determined to finish it last summer, I thought I would never make it through, but I ended up just loving it, and I even missed Owen’s caps after all. Although I do not offer this as a recommendation in any way; I’m only sharing the experience of repeated-attempts followed by contented-wonderment. Right now I am slowly shlepping across the surface of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, waiting to stumble into the truth of it all. Best of luck with Robinson (I haven’t made it through her yet, either, and I have no plans to try again)!

    • Love your Owen Meany story, Buried. I read it with an internet group, over ten years ago now, and loved it … For Owen’s voice! But I’ll never forget it for another reason too… One of our members reported that she threw it across the room!

      Interestingly I’m very keen to read Robinson, because she feels like my sort of reading, but while I read and enjoyed Cloud atlas it hasn’t resonated with me long term like it does for some, and I don’t as a result feel driven to read more of his.

  16. Love the quote! I am a big fan of that method myself. I read James Joyce’s Ulysses that way and pretty much any other challenging book. if I don’t know everything that is going on I just keep reading and hold on to what makes sense and eventually I find a way in. Though sometimes I know at the final page I have missed a lot and if I want to truly understand will need to re-read someday.

    • Exactly Stefanie. That’s usually how I go. If I think it’s just the beginning I’ve missed I’ll go back but if I think it’s been a gradual cottoning on and that I’ve got the gist well enough, I won’t go back and reread immediately. But rereading anything – even those you feel you understood well – usually reveals something new doesn’t it?

      • Teachers use those kinds of lists (Lexile levels) all the time – here anyway. There are some inherent problems in that they deal with language only and not ideas unless they’ve been factored in in some way. So when you see The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann being a good read for a 7th grader you know the measuring tool is not including the ideas – but in that case there might be a translator issue as well. In general they’re good

        With English learners you can take a book with a Lexile of 4th grade but good meaty ideas and use it wonderfully well – for instance, Grapes of Wrath or other Steinbeck books.

        • Thanks Bekah … I hadn’t heard of Lexile levels, but maybe Aussie teachers might see this and comment on whether they are used here. That’s a good point re language vs ideas when assessing books for students.

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