Five Tips for Reading Classic Literature

Take it from two English majors: reading the classics can be a slog. But it doesn’t have to be. We’re not here to convince anyone to read the classics, but if you’re looking for a challenging, cozy, or scholarly reading experience—we’ve got a few tips to help you get the most out of any classic novel.

Sparknotes is your friend

Your high school English teacher may have warned you against using Sparknotes in place of your nightly reading assignments, but these two English teachers are here to tell you that it’s a wonderful resource for students and non-students alike. In fact, we frequently turn to Sparknotes for plot reminders, character descriptions, or chapter summaries as we prepare podcast episodes (and even lesson plans). If you’re reading a classic novel with particularly dense language, use Sparknotes as a pre-reading tool so that you can focus on deciphering the language instead of wondering what’s happening. If you’re feeling stuck in the middle of your current classic read, use Sparknotes as a jetpack to propel you forward in the story, reading a summary to remind yourself of what you read (or to skip a few dull chapters).

Get some context

Familiarizing yourself with the setting, author, and historical context is an excellent reading strategy for any book, but especially for an older classic novel. With countless resources at our fingertips, it’s easy to find historical information, author biographies, and more. But we have a few suggestions for where to seek out your context:

  • Read the introduction. Most editions of classic novels have an introduction at the front of the book, written by a scholar, author, or literary figure. These introductions contain both commentary and context to help prepare you for reading. We enjoy introductions that are written by modern authors, as they often have insights connecting the classics to their modern work.
  • Listen to a podcast. Sara loves listening to podcast episodes about the historical context of a classic to help her prepare for our own podcast recordings. To prep for our episode on Beloved by Toni Morrison, we listened to an incredible discussion on The Stacks Podcast. We listen to podcasts before, during and after reading, depending on the book, and we do our best to tailor our own episodes to any part of the reading process. You can listen to the Novel Pairings Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcatcher).

Audiobooks, audiobooks, audiobooks

Listening to an audiobook is our favorite way to tackle a classic. The right narrator can bring even the dustiest, driest classic novel to life—or make our favorite classics sparkle. Plus, if you’ve got a hefty tome on your list (we’re looking at you, The Count of Monte Cristo), audiobooks are an excellent way to make progress, no page-turning required. Our favorite audiobook source is Libro.fm, and you can click here to get two audiobooks for the price of one.

Buy a pretty version

Let’s be honest. Part of the fun of reading a classic novel is finding a beautiful version to admire. Whether that means you’re inclined to pick it up more frequently, or that you let it linger on the shelf, we’re not here to judge. The Penguin Clothbound Classics are a bookworm crowd favorite, but we’re partial to the brand new Penguin Vitae series. These Virago Modern Classics are also stunning.

Reconsider what “classic” means to you

If you have your heart set on reading Dickens, Austen, or Eliot, we’re here to cheer you on. But if you simply can’t get into the language, if you find the plot-lines muddied (or boring), might we offer a suggestion? Reconsider your definition of “classic.” The literary canon is filled with famous works from the 1800’s, but there are also incredible modern classics from the 1960’s through the 1990’s to enjoy. Try reading James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Louise Erdrich instead. Pick up a recent novel by Emily St. John Mandel and relish in the possibility of her work being listed among the literary greats someday. Remember this: you don’t need to read the classics in order to be a good reader.

Do you have more tips for reading classic literature? Leave them in a comment below.

3 thoughts on “Five Tips for Reading Classic Literature”

  1. Loved the gift guide. Such great ideas. These books could keep me busy all of 2021. True confession……I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel. I think 2021 may be the year. Recommendation on which to start with for a beginner? Thanks for the great podcast.

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    1. Thank you so much! You can’t go wrong with Jane, but I think Pride & Prejudice is the best place to start. It’s witty, romantic, and insightful…all the things that make her work great! Plus there just might be a P&P Novel Pairings episode on the 2021 horizon… -sara

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