Posted by: Nathan | February 2, 2009

How to Read Long Books

I am in the process of finishing of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and I have been in that process since November. It is a tome, and frequently when people see me lugging it around, they say, “You’re reading that?” When I say yes, they congratulate me, which I find somewhat odd. I’m reading a long book not winning a gold medal. I believe they are reacting to my efforts to take on a book of such intimidating length, but long books don’t have to be scary. You simply need a different approach to reading them.

Whenever I sit down to read a book of average length, say somewhere around 300 pages, my strategy is to attack it and get through it. Usually, this is fairly easily done, especially when the book is engaging. After a mere fifty pages, I can tell myself I’m 1/6 of the way to the end; when I reach triple digit pages, I have only 2/3 remaining. A relatively small amount of reading yields an accurate and lovely feeling of progress. By voraciously reading, I can enjoy the book and finish it without exhausting myself. This is an excellent approach to have for the vast majority of books.

However, when I take on longer books, the above strategy yields disaster. I read the same amount of pages, but I feel that I’ve gotten nowhere. If my book is 1000 pages, fifty pages is nothing, and 100 pages is a mere 1/10! Worst of all, the amount of pages remaining in my right hand seems undiminished. If I react by reading even more furiously in an attempt to get through the book, I don’t enjoy reading (my attention is on my progress, not the book) and I get exhausted. Using this method, it becomes all-too-easy to discard the book and pick up something shorter.

If you want to read long books, many of which are world famous and superb, you need a different approach. First, and most importantly, take your time. If you feel like reading a lot, go for it; if not, put it down without chastising yourself. The book will be there for you later. When you give yourself permission to read at the pace you want, you’ll find that reading that tome is enjoyable again. This step was hard for me to adopt because I like closure and the rush of finishing books; worse, I chastise myself when I “give up” on something.

Secondly, try not to look at the page numbers. You’ve got 1000 pages. What difference does it make if you’re on page 126 or 804? Your aim is to get into the book as much as possible. After all, the content is why you’re reading this heavy volume, right? Let the story absorb you; put it down when it does not. Yes, I know you’ll look at the page numbers still, but the less you do so, the better.

I also recommend reading another book (or several) while you read the monstrous volume. If you force yourself to inhabit the world of the heavy book exclusively, you will feel trapped when you can’t get out of it in a short period of time. Grab something else–something unrelated, shorter, and lighter (both literally and figuratively)–and read it when you don’t want to read your long book. At first, I thought it would be confusing to switch back and forth between books, but it’s actually a relief. Your mind will remember where you are in the epic tome; if not, skim the last chapter. Reading several books simultaneously results in the wonderful phenomenon of having ideas echo each other and/or merge. I am always surprised at how seemingly-unrelated texts often combine to form fascinating ideas. Plus, it’s fun to say, “Oh yeah, that book! I finished it while reading Moby-Dick.” 

Unfortunately, there are times when you cannot take your time with large texts. This usually occurs in the classroom setting. As an aspiring professor, I can already see that it will be difficult to balance excellent and long books with realistic expectations of how much students can read in a set amount of time. Whenever this happens, you just have to do your best. If that means skipping ahead or not finishing, so be it.

Hopefully this advice will be useful to you in your literary pursuits. Of course, every reader is unique, and the only way to know yourself better as a reader is to read. It took me several years to learn the above lessons for myself. I read Ulysses, Moby-Dick, Clarel, Les Miserables, and The Portrait of a Lady (and gave up on Middlemarch) using the wrong method, and the books suffered as a result. I took my time with Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, David Copperfield, and now War and Peace and enjoyed the experience much more.

The longer the book, the more important it is that you follow the above steps. There is a lot of amazing literature out there that is length-prohibitive for many people; if you want to read them, just take your time, ignore the page numbers, and read other books. You’ll find it’s not as difficult as it looks.

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