“I gave up on that book.”

More than once I’ve heard this sentiment, sometimes expressed with a tinge of regret and shame, especially when it concerns a classic whose greatness everyone is expected to encounter and extol. I’ve heard it said of books widely revered—Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Augustine’s Confessions, even Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. Many a theology reader has run up against the wall of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics or trudged through the molasses of the Puritan John Owen. People tell me they just can’t get through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov even after multiple attempts, and I must confess my own failure in persevering through Tolstoy’s War and Peace and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Let me set your mind at ease. The first thing we must do is take these unfortunate and unmerited feelings of failure and shove them in a desk drawer and throw away the key. You’re not at fault, nor are you a failure for not liking a book.

I’m with Alan Jacobs, who begins his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction with a chapter on reading at whim:

“Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day.” (23)

If you feel the need to close a book that bores you, then by all means, put yourself out of your misery. Life is too short. Read what interests you. Read what gives you pleasure. Feel no guilt for devouring the latest detective story or historical tale, for rereading a devotional work that ministers to your soul, or for searching a theology book for perspective on a topic that intrigues you.

That said, I imagine my readers do want to tackle the hard books on occasion. You want to set aside the book that gives you instant delight so you can train your powers of concentration and focus on a book that has earned a reputation. I believe you’re right to have such a desire. Here’s Jacobs again:

“Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble. In those times when Whim isn’t quite enough, times that will come to us all, we discover this. Such work strengthens our minds, makes us more capable of concentration, teaches us patience—and almost certainly a touch of humility as well, as we struggle to navigate the difficult (if elegant) terrain.” (50)

If that’s you—delighted to read whatever strikes your fancy, yet also determined to stretch your mind and grow in your deliberative powers—then I recommend you commit to persevering through some classic works. “Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers,” Jacobs says. “They are not readily encountered, easily assessed.” That’s one reason they’re great.

Here are five tips to help you persevere through the most demanding of books.

1. Don’t chain yourself to a hard book.

The worst mistake you can make is to pick up a large and difficult book and commit to forgoing all other books until the hard one is finished. Not only will this silly commitment make reading a drudgery, but you will also miss out on opportunities to find and read other good books during the time you’re trudging through the challenging one.

Treat regular books like your normal routine of walking around the neighborhood, and treat the difficult book like going to the gym to meet with a trainer. Make an appointment with the hard book. Decide on the best time to give yourself over to the mind-stretching routine—maybe once or twice or week, perhaps for 30 minutes at a time—and then keep your appointments. But don’t ever limit yourself to one hard book and then punish yourself daily until you’ve finished it.

2. Read the hard book with a different set of expectations.

Be patient. Don’t try to “get” everything the first time around. I remember finishing Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for the first time and feeling both exhilarated and exhausted, thinking, I didn’t understand even a quarter of this book, but what I did understand was gold!

You don’t have to follow every trail of a novelist’s tale in order to encounter and understand the characters. You don’t have to understand every page of a deep work of theology to still stretch your mind. Perseverance is the goal, and patience is required. If you don’t understand everything, focus on what you do understand, and remind yourself that a classic book deserves repeat readings.

3. Make use of helps and guides.

Teachers sometimes scoff at Cliffs Notes and similar helps through difficult or classic works. I scoff at their scoffing.

One of the best ways to encounter an older book is with a trusted guide who can give you context for what you’re about to read or help sum up the main contours of what you just finished reading. (This is what I sought to do in my annotated guide to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.) Yes, too many summaries and annotations can get in the way of the text or supplant the author in some way, but for the most part, I don’t see any problem with relying on helps.

4. Divide a big book into smaller chunks.

If the classic you want to read is lengthy (say, the size of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, well over 1,200 pages in some editions), it’s a good idea to pace yourself so you won’t feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the book. If you want to finish in six months, you’ll need to finish 200 pages a month, or roughly 50 pages a week, or just 7 pages a day. Set the appointment for the book, whether daily, a couple times a week, or once a week, and then stick to it.

Eat the elephant one portion at a time. Don’t gorge yourself on a challenging book. Cut it up into smaller portions. No meat is inedible if you ration the chunks and work them into a rhythm.

5. Find a friend or group committed to the same book.

Reading alongside others by following a plan or engaging in periodic discussions will not only help you stay the course but also read in ways that anticipate conversation, thus cementing some of the book’s main themes or points in your mind much more easily. If you don’t have anyone close by who is interested in the same book, you can always find groups online willing to join together to read a classic and discuss it. Look for these opportunities.

In all, just remember: it is possible to persevere through even the most challenging of books. Be smart enough to know which books deserve your endurance, and then set a plan for the mental workout.

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