I suspect most of you have come across those internet lists which tell you if you haven’t read a certain amount of well-known books, usually anywhere from 50 to 100, then your life isn’t complete or something else to that dramatic effect. And if that wasn’t daunting enough, most of the books that make the list are classics you’ve either never heard of or tomes which dredge up long-repressed memories of required high school or university reading.
For those who long to be well-read, this can be a high pressure situation (relatively speaking of course!), but if you ask me, I say don’t sweat it and read what you like. I have always maintained that any reading is good reading, and I stand by that!
However, if you’re itching to dive into Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” but are feeling a bit intimidated, I’m here to offer a few ideas to make the most of your reading, not only in terms of enjoyment but of understanding as well.
When tackling one of the classics, I first like to read a summary of critical reviews of the book. This helps me to gain an understanding of the themes and characters and often offers a general overview of the plot without giving away all of the story. I also enjoy learning what others thought of the work so that I can compare and contrast my reactions as I read along.
In the same vein as critical reviews, I research literary criticism regarding a book’s main characters. For me, how an author develops his subjects is usually one of the most interesting parts of a novel. Educating yourself on what nuances and quirks book critics perceive when studying famous literary characters is endlessly fascinating. Furthermore, the more a reader can understand, relate, sympathise with or even despise a character, the richer the reading experience will be.
Once I’ve completed the book or if I reach a point where my comprehension is faltering, I will use a companion work such as CliffsNotes or even read about the work on Wikipedia. I know this may sound silly to some people, but I feel if I’m going to take the time to read an important book then it behooves me to thoroughly understand why the work is important and why its impact has withstood the test of time.
Discussing the book with someone who’s read it is also a great idea and can serve as a way to compare and contrast your impressions of the work. You’d be surprised how another person’s take on a particular character or situation is completely different than your own and can, in turn, open you up to an entirely new or higher level of comprehension.
Finally, tackle the book more than once, preferably a few months after you’ve read it the first time. Giving yourself time to mull over the work before coming back is ideal for refreshing your original ideas about the book, and the time away opens you up to new ideas upon your reread.
Again, reading is worthwhile no matter what the subject material, nearly without fail. That being said, don’t be scared to crack open a classic and break out of your comfort zone. After all, the wondrous works of important writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Shakespeare are still around today, and it might not be such a bad idea to find out why.
Carissa D. Lamkahouan is a career writer, journalist and mum of three boisterous kids. She enjoys fitness, reading and travelling to Morocco, the homeland of her husband. She has been a Muslim since 2005 and lives in Houston, Texas.